Mental Health Check: 6 Tips for Weathering Another Pandemic Winter

If ever we needed to symbolically shake off the old year and embrace the new one, it's this year. But that may require a novel approach. Photo: Jasmina007/Getty Images

Wednesday, January 26, 2022, is Bell Let’s Talk Day — an opportunity for Canadians across the country to discuss important issues surrounding mental health. With that in mind, we revisit a story from earlier this month, in which Megan Rafuse, a social worker and registered clinical therapist, offers expert tips for making it through another pandemic winter — from self-care strategies to refilling your emotional bank account.


If there’s one year we were all ready to part with, it was 2020 — and 2021, as it turns out.

If ever we needed to symbolically shake off an old year — make that two — and embrace a new one, it’s now. But in an ongoing pandemic, what’s ahead continues to be unpredictable — and that may require a novel approach.

“Not only are we facing all the challenges that come with winter — shorter days and potentially less social connection — but we’re also facing the challenges that come with COVID. For a lot of people, facing those unknowns drives a lot of anxiety,” said Megan Rafuse, an Ontario-based social worker and registered clinical therapist.

“That’s where we really need to start thinking about what is in my control so I can get through winter. To cope in healthy ways.”

We spoke with Rafuse last year, and her advice stands as we head into another new year — and another pandemic winter.


Choose a Theme


We might be tempted to make New Year’s resolutions, but Rafuse proposes a different strategy.

“I really love the idea of a theme for the year. It comes from Gretchen Rubin, who is a happiness researcher. And I just love the idea because it takes the pressure off those typical goals, like ‘I have to lose weight,’ which are often tied to ‘I’m not good enough as I am.'”

She recommended that rather than resolutions, “which we tend to break anyway,” a one-word theme can act as a guide for the year. For example, momentum could apply to making more effort to date or getting more exercise by moving more.


Gratitude Goes a Long Way


Although it may not seem intuitive after the year — now two — we’ve had, gratitude is a good choice for a theme. As Rafuse pointed out, giving thanks more frequently does us good on multiple fronts.

“It actually primes us to think more positively. Just like going to the gym primes us to use certain muscles, practising gratitude primes our brain to think in terms of abundance and having enough,” she explained.

Start small, maybe five minutes a day. Think about or write down who or what makes you feel grateful. And think small as well. Gestures, like someone holding open the door for you at the grocery store or a stranger in front of you at the drive-through paying for your order, mean even more right now.

“It shows connection. And right now we are starving for connection, so little things we can do to get that connection are really important,” said Rafuse.


Time to Reinvent the Wheel


It’s also time to be creative about staying connected. Rafuse, who offers her services remotely through virtual health care provider Maple, used the example of a client in her 80s who, after enlisting help to log on for a weekly bridge game that went virtual after the pandemic, reimagined her regular dinner parties.

She and three friends would order the same meal delivery kit, make it via video chat and then eat together.

“So one way we can feel more in control of our environment is to ask for help when we feel stuck. Do I need help to set up a call with three friends on video chat?”

“And now it’s a regular part of her routine. So in that instance, she asked for help but she also challenged herself to stop assuming the worst … Being alone doesn’t have to mean that I’m going to be lonely.”


Back to the Future


By scheduling activities, self-care and social events — even a phone call — you feel more in control during uncertain times. And as for all those well-laid plans, putting them in the calendar will help prevent your present self from sabotaging your future self.

As Rafuse explained, “We have high hopes for our future self. Yesterday I told my partner, ‘I’m going to go for a walk around the block with you tomorrow.’ And then today I don’t want to go.”

“I’m better off listening to my future self from yesterday, who really wanted to go, than my present self, who’s way more impulsive and makes decisions based on feelings that might not be accurate.”

She says that scheduling tasks helps create positive pressure, a commitment we want to uphold.

“And if it’s not scheduled, it’s just living in our heads, which feels even more overwhelming. ‘Oh, I have to remember to do this.’ And right now, the less we have floating around in our head, the easier it is to accomplish — if it’s down on paper..”


Refill Your Emotional Bank Account


Of course, it’s also important to keep our emotional bank account in good standing. As Rafuse explained it, the pandemic is making a lot of withdrawals on that account, so we need to make enough deposits to stay out of the red.

“For me right now, watching one of those Hallmark holiday movies — I’m getting a good eight out of 10 for that,” she said with a laugh.

“But we all fill our accounts in different ways. A walk around the block could be a six. Calling a really close friend could be an eight. Even washing the dishes, maybe that gives me a few — and some days all I need is a few.”

And give yourself credit for every deposit.

“We’re working harder than ever now to add more back in, and that’s important to acknowledge. For many of us, our usual coping strategies don’t have the same impact,” she said.

“So it’s the time to say, ‘How do I actually give myself more?’ And not beat myself up for feeling more depleted — because we all are more depleted by managing through pandemic.”


Share the Wealth This Winter


Although giving to charity helps us feel good and helps to top up that emotional bank account, giving isn’t all about money.

As Rafuse pointed out, “COVID allows us time to slow down and share stories” and to “think about what has value and helps us feel connected to our world.”

“We are all connected by stories, and I would encourage people, if they have stories to share or things to teach their loved ones, now’s the time!”

A version of this story was published on Jan. 4, 2021.


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