Dr. Paul on how to cope with the winter of our discontent

With the cold setting in and infection rates surging, many of us are experiencing more anxiety and discomfort.

Maria is an 82-year-old widow, living alone in an apartment, struggling through the pandemic. Her daughter lives in the Midwest. She’s been managing, trying to keep her head above water by attending Zoom church services, online classes, reading, and talking with friends and family with FaceTime.

Then, her neighbor came down with COVID-19 and suddenly, Maria was terrified. What would she do if she got sick? Who would take care of her dog? What if she needed to be hospitalized?

With winter setting in and infection rates surging, many of us are experiencing more anxiety and discomfort than we had during the summer and fall. During those months, we spent more time outside visiting with friends and family outdoors, 6 feet away.

Like most summers, we were more physically active. Infection rates were lower, and we felt safer. Yes, the vaccine gives us hope for the future, but what about the next few months? With news reports of a more transmissible viral mutation, many of us are worried. Our bodies are keeping score.

My friends tell me about their gastro-intestinal distress, back and shoulder pain, headaches and interrupted sleep. Sandy, a mom of two teens, doesn’t like how grumpy she’s become, yelling at her youngsters when they go out, “Remember to wear your masks!” Joe notes that he just doesn’t feel good, remarking “I don’t feel like myself at all.”

Sarah notices that she’s drinking more than she used to when she finishes work at the end of the day — two beers have become three or four. And she notices the difference when she steps on the scale.

So how can we cope better with winter in the pandemic?

Get outside. Dust off your rain gear, umbrella, and rain hat. Some days, between work and bad weather, my feet don’t ever hit the pavement. My wife pushes me outside, and I never regret it. I always feel better after we take a walk, no matter how cold and wet it is. When it’s pouring, I do stretches, jumping jacks and take a ride on my stationary bike.

Double down on relaxation practices. I’m no different than anyone else. I have to push myself to do the things that bring me peace. It’s so easy to gravitate toward less healthy ways of promoting relaxation. There are many phone apps that can lead you through guided meditation, track your relaxation time and motivate you to be more mindful, calm and centered. Prevention of stress-related physical discomfort is far better than a pound of cure. Once your body reacts, it can take a long time to return to a more comfortable state.

Online yoga, dance and mindfulness classes abound. My wife takes dance classes in our dining room from New York City! I take a weekly tai chi class in my living room. The new year is a great time to start something new.

Pay attention. Notice how you are reacting to the stress in your life. What are you thinking, feeling and doing? How does your body respond? What triggers both good and bad habits? By paying attention to our experience, we are better able to make thoughtful choices. Sarah could have another beer, or read a book or take a bath instead.

Connect more. In the beginning of the pandemic, I attended a weekly family Zoom call. But as the months passed, I’ve become a less frequent attendee. Last spring, I regularly called my friends that I knew were alone, but I haven’t recently. Whether we are introverts or extroverts, we need social engagement, which has been one of the victims of the pandemic. If you have become more withdrawn over the months, reach out. You won’t regret it.

Spring will come, as it always does, with warmer weather, new growth and new opportunity.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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