By Emily Skehill, Manager of Public Education and Awareness at Mental Health America
If saying goodbye to this summer was harder for you than most years, you aren’t alone. The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way many of us perceive time – this October really snuck up on me, and I still feel like I’ve barely processed last March.
A few weeks ago, I noticed myself feeling a bit more anxious than usual most days. I was quick to get overwhelmed when people asked me to make plans, and I constantly felt like time was moving too fast for me to catch up mentally. It was obvious that I was feeling little "off," but I had no idea why – nothing about my life had changed, and I’d been in a pretty good spot with my mental health.
All of COVID-19 has been a sustained trauma – we've been through a lot over the last year and a half, and some of that built-up stress may be starting to surface now as we prepare to enter the end of 2021.
SAYING GOODBYE TO WARM WEATHER
We’ve done this whole “COVID winter” thing before, and to a much stricter degree than will probably be necessary this winter – so why do the next few months still seem so intimidating?
Part of it is because we got our hopes up; we had a taste of freedom with summer 2021 and were promised that the pandemic was almost over – except now it’s not. When we came out of our first COVID-winter and entered the spring of 2021, we knew there was still a long way to go with vaccinations and slowing the spread, but it seemed like it would be under control by the fall. We were able to enjoy plenty of outdoor activities and socialization – things weren't "back to normal," but it felt like we were getting closer, and many of us clung to the idea that by the time summer was over, we’d be able to ditch masks and social distancing for good.
Now, as the days are cooler and it’s getting darker earlier, there will be fewer and fewer outdoor events to attend and it’s not as easy to round up your friends for a weekday evening on the patio. This seasonal transition can be daunting even in the best of times and may feel especially intense this winter – you aren’t the only one struggling to accept the changing weather and what it might mean for your quality of life.
THERE'S STILL A LOT OF UNCERTAINTY
While the vaccine rollout has helped alleviate fear for many in terms of physical health, a number of populations, including children and immunocompromised folks, remain at high risk. We don’t know what variants may crop up, how they’ll impact people, or how they’ll respond to the vaccine or medical intervention. No one is expecting this winter to be as bad as last year’s, but we do know that it’s no joke – physical safety is still something that we have to pay close attention to. On top of COVID concerns, it’s also the beginning of flu season (ugh).
This leaves us with even more questions – will I be able to spend time with my friends inside? Will there be another shutdown or full quarantine? When will the pandemic finally be behind us?
COVID-19 WINTER 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO
Anniversaries impact us, often subconsciously – experiencing the same time of year can bring back a lot of feelings. Within the COVID pandemic, there are a few noteworthy anniversaries. We all remember March 2020, when the pandemic first hit. You may not be thinking about the fall of 2020 as an anniversary, but this time last year, we were all gearing up for our first COVID winter – we had experienced most businesses being shut down, but we had yet to experience that during colder weather when outdoor socialization isn't as much of an option.
Just because there’s no specific start or end date to 2020’s trauma of shifting from a COVID summer to a COVID winter doesn’t mean you can’t feel those same unpleasant feelings again. The familiarity of the temperature, smells, fall activities, and so many other annual markers can trigger memories of how difficult this time was in 2020.
GETTING THROUGH IT
Identify your feelings. When we’re caught up in big emotions, it’s difficult to feel anything other than completely overwhelmed. Start with figuring out what specific feelings are bubbling up inside of you – from there, you can work on coping with them.
Share your feelings with someone else. We collectively faced the initial traumas of COVID-19, but re-traumatization and struggles to adapt are happening more individually. It’s easy to feel alone in this, but remember that we’re all moving forward from similar experiences – more people than you expect may be able to relate. Make a pact with a friend to check in on each other every so often.
Allow yourself to be realistically positive. This is still a scary time and unpleasant feelings may have surfaced, but we’ve been able to process some of that already. Some healing has already been done – you already have the skills to get through this winter.
Remind yourself of the progress we have made. Feelings of anxiety are still valid, but try to remind yourself that even if things feel the same as last year, they aren’t – now, we have multiple vaccines, plans in place in case of a shutdown, and safety standards that we’re already accustomed to.
Spend time outside. Losing out on natural light plays a big role in the "winter blues." Try to get outside as much as you can (even though it may not be as pleasant in the cold) or rearrange your living space so that you’re spending more time in the sunlight. You can also start taking vitamin D supplements or purchase special kinds of lamps to help boost your mood.
Make a disaster/crisis plan. The best time to create a safety plan is well before you need it – organize your thoughts so that you know what signs to look out for with your own mental health and think ahead about what helps during challenging times. That way, if it does get bad again, you're prepared to handle it.
Take a screen for depression. If you find yourself struggling beyond this initial transition period or if it’s interrupting your life, take a depression screen. If a certain time of year always impacts you – COVID aside – consider if you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).