Monday, November 9, 2020

How to keep your mental health in check during a second lockdown

7 min read
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Feel Therapeutics

Take the necessary measures to protect your mental health during this COVID Winter.

The nights are drawing in, the weather is turning colder, and even after eight months, COVID-19 has no intention of retreating. With many countries teetering on the brink of further lockdown measures, this winter really could be one of discontent, especially when it comes to our mental health.

The impact of weather on our mental health

Whether it’s too hot or too cold, extreme weather can have a negative impact on our mental health [1].

During the winter months, because there is limited sunshine, we naturally tend to spend more time indoors and would rather stay there than go out and enjoy our normal activities. As a result, our bodies tend to produce less serotonin, the chemical that contributes to happiness and wellbeing, and more melatonin, the chemical which encourages us to sleep.

Effectively, our bodies go into a form of hibernation mode, which can increase our likelihood of depression. And when you put the stress of COVID-19 on top of that, our mental health is bound to be impacted.

The lockdown effect on our wellbeing

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published “A theory of human motivation” which described how human needs could be organized into a hierarchy that start with the very basic needs every human needs to survive and you move up through the hierarchy once the needs on the lower level have been met.

The “COVID-19 Community Stabilization and Sustainability Framework: An Integration of the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs and Social Determinants of Health” study [2], published April 21, 2020, investigated why government decision-makers needed to understand the risks and “long-term societal harm and societal instability” that the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions could have.

The study found that lockdowns could potentially impact individuals and society as a whole in all but the top hierarchical layer, as shown in the table below.

Another study by the Kaiser Family Foundation [3] found that depression and anxiety rates are particularly high among the over 65s. One in four over 65s reported anxiety or depression since the start of the pandemic, a significant increase from 2018 when this age bracket reported only one in ten suffering from anxiety or depression.

This is hardly surprising since the over 65s are one of the vulnerable groups at the highest risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and account for 79% of all COVID-19 related deaths in the United States [4].

What are the biggest risks to your mental health?

At the moment, it’s clear that COVID-19 is going to be a long-term challenge and that the road to a new normal will be bumpy.

With eight months of restrictions behind us, many are already suffering from ‘pandemic fatigue’, and life appears to take two steps forward and one step back.

Winter brings the added challenges of dark nights and potentially a very different holiday season, with restrictions on family gatherings for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year.

Other things that may impact our mental health during the winter months of COVID-19 are:

  • Worrying unnecessarily about things that are out of our control
  • Watching too much news and spending too long on social media
  • Thinking about all the ‘what ifs’
  • Neglecting your physical health
  • Letting others direct our thoughts and behaviors
  • Eating, drinking, and spending too much

Top 6 ways to keep your mental health in check

It’s important to look after your mental health every day, and there are some simple things that you can do to help yourself.

  1. Stay in control

With all the doom and gloom in the mainstream media and the toxicity on social media, it’s very easy to get ‘sucked in’ and find yourself brought down by it all.

It’s also easy to forget that stress is, in its simplest form, physical or emotional tension. Stress can be positive or negative, but that all depends on us. As Hans Seyler famously said: “It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.”

So, try and control what you can and adapt your life so it’s not affected, too much, by what you can’t control. This means:

  • Trying not to dwell on the ‘what if’s
  • Restrict news coverage and only get the news from credible sources rather than Dave on Facebook,
  • Talking of Facebook, try and limit your time on social media. Use it to keep in touch with family and friends, but try not to post or get dragged into debates, especially when it comes to COVID-19 speculation.

2. Keep in touch

Lockdowns and cold weather mean it’s even more important to keep in touch with friends and family digitally to stop us from feeling lonely.

Investing time to keep in touch makes us feel more connected with each other, even if we can’t meet in person, and Zoom and other video conferencing apps have made recent restrictions bearable and working from home possible. So schedule time in your diary every week to catch up.

It’s also important to think about others in your community during the winter months. Many communities need volunteers to help those in need, from phoning an elderly person with no family to fetching shopping for someone who is shielding. Getting involved with community initiatives is, as selfish as it sounds, a great way to help yourself. As Buddha said: “If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.”

3. Establish a routine

There is a risk during restrictions that the pressure of juggling family, work, and life can get too much, and sticking to a routine should bring some sense of normality back to your life.

Yes, the weather is colder, but you can adapt your routine to fit. Getting up each day at the same time, having a shower, and getting dressed, is a good start.

Then make sure you schedule time in your day for work, rest, and play to ensure you continue to keep everything in your life balanced.

4. Get active

Exercise is the best-known anti-depressant going, and just because you can’t go to the gym doesn’t mean you should stop exercising.

Take advantage of the sunlight, wrap up and go for a walk, or a run, to keep your body in good shape and those serotonin levels up.

There are also plenty of online workouts available on YouTube that you can try, running up and down the stairs is a great cardiovascular workout, and if all else fails, get the vacuum out because housework is a great way to burn calories.

5. Eat healthily

It’s very easy when we’re stuck at home to snack more and exercise less.

So it’s important, especially over winter, when our bodies want to consume more calories, that you think about what you eat and try and stick to a healthy, balanced diet.

Food can also impact both your mood and energy levels. Highly processed and sugar-laden foods, which are great comfort foods and OK in moderation, have a detrimental effect on your brain function, increase your risk of depression, and make you feel sluggish and lethargic.

A healthy diet should consist of plenty of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Try to limit your consumption of red and processed meat, fats, sugar, salt, and alcohol.

6. Be more “koselig” [5]

“Koselig” is the Norwegian for coziness, and despite incredible short periods of daylight during the winter months, Norwegians look forward to the arrival of their harsh winters.

Stanford Ph.D. student, Kari Leibowitz, spent 10 months in Tromsø, Norway, studying how the population coped and thrived during those long, cold winter months. Leibowitz found that their ‘mental fortitude’ and mindset was the reason for their winter wellbeing and that having a positive winter mindset was associated with greater life satisfaction and better mental wellbeing.

All it takes is a simple change in mindset to approach winter and any potential restrictions, confident that you can stay in control of how you respond to external stressors.

Taking the necessary measures to protect your mental health during this COVID winter is a great step. However, some people may find it more difficult than others to do it on their own.

Feel Relief is an online mental wellbeing program that gives you the skills you need to self-manage daily challenges that affect your emotional health with optimism, strength, and confidence and help you feel more balanced and positive. The program was created as part of our efforts to develop digital biomarkers and therapeutics to bring objective, passive, and continuous measurement and data to reinvent the way we diagnose, manage, and care for mental health.


[1] Extreme Weather Events and Mental Health: Tackling the Psychosocial Challenge, July 18, 2013, Jyotsana Shukla

[2] COVID-19 Community Stabilization and Sustainability Framework: An Integration of the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs and Social Determinants of Health, published online April 21, 2020, Benjamin J. Ryan, PhD, MPH, Damon Coppola, MEM, ARM, Deon V. Canyon, PhD, DBA, MPH, FACTM, Mark Brickhouse, PhD, and Raymond Swienton, MD

[3] One in Four Older Adults Report Anxiety or Depression Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, Kaiser Family Foundation, October 9, 2020, Wyatt Koma, Sarah True, Jeannie Fuglesten Biniek, Juliette Cubanski, Kendal Orgera, and Rachel Garfield

[4] Weekly Updates by Select Demographic and Geographic Characteristics, CDC

[5] A Pandemic Winter Doesn’t Have to Defeat Us: Lessons From Norway, October 16, 2020, Ardsheer Ali

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