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5 Ways to Decrease Stress During a Pandemic this Winter

5 Ways to Decrease Stress During a Pandemic this Winter

Chanel Dubofsky | November 25, 2020 | Women's Health
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2020 has been, as my grandmother would say, a "wallop." Trying to navigate our already complicated daily lives amid a global pandemic, on/off lockdowns, an especially intense election season, and the threat of murder hornets is a lot to ask. And now that we're heading into colder weather, shorter daylight hours, and likely another lockdown, it's time to gather the tools we'll need to power through. Here's our roundup of 5 ways you can decrease your stress this winter. 

Structure, structure, structure

Although it can be tempting (and lovely, for a while) to stay in bed when you feel overwhelmed, there is robust science behind the argument that developing a daily routine can actually improve your mental health, especially when things are extra stressful. 

"With winter months approaching and potentially another lockdown coming our way because of the second wave, we need to follow a daily routine to keep ourselves busy and our stress levels controlled," says Andrea Paul, a doctor and medical advisor at Michigan State University, and the CEO of Health Media Experts. "Come up with a structured plan to define clear boundaries for yourself in your daily routine. Apart from your work, try adding your hobbies into your routine to do the things you enjoy." (Don't hesitate to go hard when it comes to that self-care!) 


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The switch from more to less daylight that comes with daylight saving time takes a toll on your circadian rhythms, which regulate your mood, as well as your sleeping and waking patterns. This is where sticking with a routine can also improve things, especially if your routine involves waking up early so you can take advantage of natural light (1). A 2018 study indicated that having a routine that maximizes daylight hours results in better sleep, also a key part of your wellbeing (2). Getting outside (with your mask, of course) is essential, and regular light therapy can also be useful for improving your mood when you're inside for long periods of time during winter lockdown (3).

Consider limiting your news intake

The 24-hour news cycle, amplified by social media, has instilled in us the fear that we're going to miss something essential if we log off for more than 5 minutes. Staying on top of the news might make you feel in control, and therefore less anxious, but disengaging is actually essential when it comes to staying mentally and physically healthy. When you're constantly checking, say, the number of COVID-19 cases in your area, your body generates the stress hormone cortisol, which curbs the function of systems deemed "non-essential" to survival in the moment, such as your immune system, the one thing you want to keep sharp during a global pandemic (4). 

"The one constant theme across the board this winter should be controlling your environment," says Jason Lee, a Relationship Science and Data Analyst with Healthy Framework. "Unplug. If you're getting undue stress from somewhere and you can remove it from your environmental landscape, do it." You can start small: decide on a discrete amount of time you'd like to be online, set an alarm, and step away from the screen once it goes off. Uninstall a news or social media app for an hour, or put your devices on airplane mode for an afternoon. Ask a friend to hold you accountable to your breaktime, and to let you know if something is happening that you need to know about. And when you are consuming media, be discriminating about sources, and listen to your gut when it tells you you've had enough. 

Move your body

Whether you're taking a yoga class on YouTube, going for a socially distanced run or bike ride, or walking in the park, exercise is even more important right now for our physical and mental wellbeing. In a time when we're all especially concerned about health, remember that exercise may also reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, as well as strengthening bones and muscles, among its many other benefits (5). 

"Physical activity increases the production of your brain's feel-good transmitters called endorphins," says personal trainer and nutritionist Jamie Hickey. Exercising 30 minutes a day, 3 to 5 days per week may allay the symptoms of anxiety and depression, both because of those endorphins and because it distracts you, so the next time you're itching to check the news, consider quelling it with a stretch or a lap around the block (6). And if you're struggling with productivity during lockdown, that's another reason to incorporate exercise into that all important daily routine. Says Hickey: "Once you begin to see exercise as a daily habit, you will find that focusing on a daily objective will result in more energy, positive thinking, and you’ll be calmer." 

And be sure to pick a form of exercise you actually enjoy doing to help you stay consistent, instead of doing something you feel like you should do but dread. 

Stay connected

By now, many of us are all too familiar with the phenomenon known as "Zoom Burnout," especially if we work from home. We may crave human connection now more than ever as we restructure or cancel holiday plans, but the thought of adding one more second to the time we're already spending online might be too much to handle. At the same time, the thought of leaving home in the winter amid COVID-19 may also send your anxiety through the roof. The science, however, is on the side of maintaining regular contact with the people in your life — socializing might actually help you live longer (7). 

The internet makes it a lot easier to stay in touch, and there's no shortage of opportunities to get creative. Stephanie Leschber, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Oregon and Washington and the owner of New Chapter Counseling, suggests setting up a regular time to talk with family and friends. "Other great ideas are being a part of a group text, signing up for an online workshop, and trying out apps like Bumble BFF or Friender if you find you need to add to your social circle." You can also have happy hours, movie and game nights, exercise classes, and (almost) anything else virtually. 

Ask for help

There's no question that the combination of COVID-19, lockdown, and winter has the potential to wreak havoc on one's mental health, whether or not you're someone who lives with anxiety, depression and/or another mental health condition. You might find yourself feeling fine one moment and overwhelmed the next. You might be angry, cranky, and just want to be left alone. You might feel like you're the only one who's upset and that you aren't upset enough — in the same hour. Everyone reacts differently in stressful situations. No matter how you feel, though, you are absolutely not alone. In a tracking poll conducted by the Kellogg Family Foundation in July 2020, 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over COVID-19-19 (8). A later study undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control found that more than 2 in 5 people in the U.S. were facing mental health issues, including increased use of substances, as a result of the pandemic (9). 

Stigma around having and receiving treatment for mental illness is real, and it impacts those who haven't been diagnosed as well as those who are experiencing symptoms for the first time and/or may be reluctant to ask for help or even mention that they're suffering to those they trust (10). The good news is that mental health care has mobilized and adapted in the face of COVID-19. Therapists and psychiatrists conduct sessions online, and medication can be delivered right to your doorstep, contact-free.


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If your mental health is negatively impacting your daily life, you may want to reach out to a trained counselor who may be able to help you cope. You can start with your healthcare provider for referrals, ask someone you feel comfortable with about their experience in therapy, and join private groups on social media who may also be able to recommend resources. 

The Centers for Disease Control, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the US Department of Health and Human Services all have dedicated websites to providing the public with information on mental health and COVID-19, including those for folks who aren't safe in their homes and those with incarcerated family members. 

Take care of yourselves and your loved ones. We’re in this together!

References +
1 Daylight Saving Time: 4 Tips to Help Your Body Adjust. (2020, February 8). Retrieved November 10, 2020, from 


2 Association of disrupted circadian rhythmicity with mood disorders, subjective wellbeing, and cognitive function: a cross-sectional study of 91 105 participants from the UK Biobank. (2018, May 15). Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(18)30139-1/fulltext 

Let the sun shine: Mind your mental health this winter. (2017, January 23). Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/let-the-sun-shine-mind-your-mental-health-this-winter-2017012311058 


Stress Management. (n.d.) Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037 


Benefits of Physical Activity. (2020, October 7).  Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm


Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms. (2017, September 27). Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495


Staying connected can improve your health. (2017 December). Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/staying-connected-can-improve-your-health.


The Implications of COVID-19-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. (2020, August 21).  Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/


CDC Report Reveals “Considerably Elevated” Mental Health Toll from COVID-19-19 Stresses. (2020, August 25). Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2770050


Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness. (2017, May 24). Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health/art-20046477

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