Focus on Self Care to Enhance Mental Health during Winter

December 10, 2020

MERCERVILLE - This winter season will be unlike any other. Stress and finances are always a concern, but now that might be even more of a concern due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Margaret "Peggy" Swarbrick, PhD, FAOTA, of the Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey (CSPNJ) Wellness Institute, and Rutgers Health - University Behavioral Health Care (UBHC), which are both members of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Inc. (NJAMHAA),states that seasonal changes, such as colder weather, uncertain and sometimes dangerous weather, an increased risk of falling for older individuals and a decrease in sunlight, compounded with the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, can have a significant impact on an individual's mental health. Dr. Swarbrick also mentions families might be experiencing grief due to the loss of family members, while others might be struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD). This time of year could also result in increased rates of addiction for some and could lead to increased anxiety and depression and social isolation, which can have a negative impact on physical health.

"The loss of loved ones, end-of-year deadlines, financial struggles, and family conflicts can impact a person during the end of the year and throughout the winter season. Anxiety and isolation related to COVID-19 have led to new and increased mental health struggles and drug use among many individuals. In addition, many people experienced depression, anxiety and/or drug use for the first time during the pandemic and services are not easy to access. This emphasizes the importance of practicing self-care and wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly during the winter months to improve both physical and mental health," said Debra L. Wentz, PhD, President and CEO of NJAMHAA.

How can a person practice self-care and wellness this winter? One way is to maintain a healthy immune system; which Dr. Swarbrick says is needed more than ever to avoid getting sick. She also recommends that people, especially those who are in recovery from mental illnesses and addictions, practice HALT, which stands for Hunger-Anger-Loneliness-Tiredness. To practice HALT, a person stops and assesses his basic needs and if they are causing any of these specific feelings. Routines and habits are key and knowing what stressors trigger HALT enables the person to plan ahead, according to Dr. Swarbrick. Take time to reflect on and plan to meet nutritional and emotional needs. With anger, a person can understand what is causing their anger and determine if the cause of anger can be confronted or not. If the source of anger is a person, calmly speak to them about the source of anger. If it is something that cannot be controlled or if the individual who is angry is not ready to confront the issue, they can find a constructive way to channel this emotion. If a person feels lonely, they can stop and consider whether or not they have reached out to anyone from their support system or if they feel like they need to be out in the world by talking a walk or safely running errands. They can also create a list of supporters to call, text or virtually call, or they can write letters to them. Sleep is very important to maintain wellness, as it improves both mental and immune function. Dr. Swarbrick found that setting a regular time to go to bed and set a regular time wake helps to build a rhythm impacting immunity and wellbeing.

Dr. Swarbrick also recommends reflecting on "spiritual wellness, which involves having a sense of meaning and purpose and a sense of balance and peace. For many, spiritual wellness comes from activities and connections to religious faith, traditions, and community. For others, spiritual wellness comes from spending time in nature, with family, and with others in activities that transcend their individuality, such as making music or helping others. Some people find yoga or other meditative activities as spiritual as well as creative activities," she says. Spiritual wellness is also very personally defined. It is important to consider your own definition of spiritual wellness.

It is also important during the holidays and winter months to reflect on the things and people for whom we are grateful. Dr. Swarbrick mentions that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to focus more on the present moment and to be grateful for meaningful experiences, which can help build resilience. "Thankfulness is linked to effective coping with life's challenges and stressors. People who practice gratitude tend to be optimistic and to have healthy habits such as exercising, eating well, and arranging for needed medical care and screenings. These habits, in turn, help us recover more quickly from illness and can impact blood pressure and our immune function. Gratitude can positively impact mental health, increase energy, and strengthen one's belief that goodness exists, even during times of suffering and doubt," Dr. Swarbrick explains.

The most important aspect to self-care and winter wellness is for people to find and explore what works best for them. CSPNJ's Wellness Institute created a winter wellness planner for 2020-2021 which provides activities that contribute to self-care and wellness. Individuals can consider which ones will support their social, emotional and physical wellness. Click here to access the planner.


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