The start of the year is a perfect time to take inventory of what’s working and not working for your mental and physical health. As we dive into a winter during lockdown, figuring out what makes you feel your best is essential for your wellness.
While COVID-19 fatigue combined with the cold weather may seem to make this season more challenging, there’s hope. There are plenty of ways to cultivate joy in your everyday life and prioritize your mental health. Drawing on advice from UHN experts and resources, we curated a list of essential wellness tips to help you stay safe and healthy this winter.
Be kind to yourself
“These are difficult times, and it is okay to feel stressed. We need to remember that,” says UHN’s Psychiatrist-in-Chief, Dr. Susan Abbey. “I think one important message that applies to everyone is: be kind to yourself.”
Our self-critic is quick to appear in times of stress – it can say hurtful things that leave you with low self-esteem, low confidence and low mood. Jenna McLeod, Team Lead at UHN’s Poul Hansen Family Centre for Depression, says that noticing that self-critical voice is the first step in distancing yourself from it to allow yourself more kindness.
Take note of the small things you do well or the things you put your best effort into. At first, that voice of kindness or self-compassion will feel quiet. “It may feel almost like this faint whisper because as human beings, we actually don’t give as much credit to it. We tend to look for the critic,” says McLeod, but the more we use it the easier it will be.
Nourish your body
The change in routine during the pandemic has impacted people’s eating habits. Many people are experiencing increased preoccupation around food and weight that wasn’t there previously – resulting in eating too much, or eating too little. Maintaining a healthy food routine is going to look different for everyone. If you find you are snacking more than usual, approach with curiosity rather than judgment. Try to listen to what your body is telling you and respond with kindness,” says UHN’s National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC).
Eating at regular intervals can also help you feel more grounded. If you experience episodes of stress-eating, try and identify the triggers so you can find a different way to deal with them. Finally, try out new things! Use this time to explore new recipes and find new foods that bring you joy.
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Find simple ways to stay active
“Exercise is of great help: it reduces stress hormones and helps with a healthy routine. Several free videos online can help you exercise at home,” says Dr. Abbey.
It may seem like your options are more limited during the colder months, but there are still plenty of ways to safely stay active indoors and outdoors. For example, you can get your dose of vitamin D and fresh air by taking walks and jogs around your neighbourhood or surrounding parks.
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You can also stay active without going outside by doing workouts at home. There are a variety of classes on YouTube, or you could even do things as simple as consciously choosing to stand every once and awhile. Take a mid-day break from your desk and dance to your favourite song, or take some time to clean the house. Here are some more ideas on how to stay active from UHN.
Find a routine
It’s easy to feel a loss of control during COVID-19. Help ground yourself with a daily routine. Start with your sleep: try to wake up and fall asleep at the same time, aiming for 6 – 8 hours of sleep per night. To help with this, avoid taking naps or drinking caffeine in the afternoon and avoid screens a couple of hours before you go to bed.
To create a routine during the day, aim to eat meals around the same time, dedicate some time (it can be short) to do something that brings you pleasure like reading a book or journaling. You can even set up weekly Zoom calls or phone calls with friends to keep a social routine. The key is to find a balance of things that work for you – try out different things until you find it.
Taking some time out of your day to build a new skill, practice a hobby, or engage in some activity can help you feel a sense of accomplishment and make you feel more purposeful. This can be things like finishing a chapter in a book, playing an instrument or practising a hobby.
UHN’s Jenna McLeod explains, “Examples of that are things like learning a language or cooking – something that feels like skill development because that also helps us as human beings to create more positive emotions.”
Many people are experiencing increased feelings of isolation and loneliness during COVID-19. But as Dr. Abbey reminds us, “what we’re being asked to do is to physically distance not to socially distance, and we have to keep our connection.”
Make time to connect with friends for even a short conversation. Try to join an online support group or take an online class to connect with new people. You can also create a list of two or three different people to check on every day or every week, or get a group of people and form a book club over Zoom. Finally, write letters! Whether it’s an email or old-fashioned snail mail, Dr. Abbey emphasizes that writing to friends isn’t just a great way for you to feel connected, but something that helps others as well.
“We spend too much time thinking about missing the usual and not enough time thinking about the possibilities,” says Dr. Abbey.
Look for those small moments of joy and kindness that appear in your life. It may be the smell of your coffee in the morning or someone who smiled at you from across the street. Practise gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal and writing three things every day that bring you joy or that you are thankful for. You can also try to write out a list of things that bring you joy and see how those can be adapted to current restrictions. For example, if you normally like having coffee with a friend, plan a virtual coffee date. You may realize you have more things to do than you thought.
Remember that mindfulness doesn’t always equal relaxation. It’s about being aware of the different emotions we are experiencing without judgment. Mindfulness practices such as meditation can help you tune into your body and identify what you’re feeling so you can find healthy ways to cope. Dr. Abbey reminds us to be kind to ourselves during this process. “Meditating is quite challenging as it allows us to become more familiar with the intimate workings of our minds and our bodies, so do not get frustrated if this approach does not work right away.”
The good news is, the more you practise mindfulness the more easily you’ll be able to use it during situations of stress.
“If you can feel it, you can heal it,” says Dr. Abbey.
Ask for help if you need it
If you find yourself struggling and need more help, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional. Some signs Jenna McLeod says to watch for are increased feelings of isolation, feeling more withdrawn from things you typically do, experiencing difficulty concentrating, feeling like your emotions are out of control and having less motivation/interest for things you usually enjoy.
There are a lot of suggestions about how to best take care of your health – but at the end of the day only you know what works best. Use these suggestions as a jumping-off point to finding your wellness journey and try not to compare yourselves to what others are doing.
“Don’t let yourself get caught up in comparisons on social media – who reads more, who takes better care of their kids, who exercises the most,” says Dr. Abbey.
There are plenty of resources online you can contact, help-lines you can call and support groups you can join (for free) to access professional help. Here are some resources you can use if you’re struggling:
- Contact your family physician and ask what they can do to help
- Mental Health Crisis Line: available 24/7, call: 1-866-996-0991
- Crisis Service Canada: 1-833-456-4566; residents of Quebec: 1-866-277-3553; text #45645 (English only) from 4:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.
- The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH): COVID-19 resources page
- Big White Wall: online 24/7 support
- Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) COVID-19 page
- Kids Help Phone (now taking calls for kids and adults): 1-800-668-6868; text #686868; live chat
- Good 2 Talk: 1-866-925-5454 (Ontario) or 1-833-292-3698 (Nova Scotia)
- Youth Services Bureau: 613-260-2360
- First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness: 24/7 help line at 1-855-242-3310, or live chat
- Talk4Healing For Indigenous Women: call or text 1-855-554-HEAL; live chat
- If you are finding that your behaviours or feelings around food and weight are problematic, you can connect with the NEDIC helpline at 1-866-NEDIC-20 (416-340-4156 in the GTA) or chat online at NEDIC.ca.