Practices for a happier and more connected winter

Published in the Sept. 15th copy of the Marathon Mercury.

Recently Roger McIntyre, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto, warned of the coming mental health difficulties predicted this winter. The good weather summer brought allowed for group gatherings out of doors, visits with friends on porches and in backyards, a much needed respite from the intensity of the novel coronavirus. However, with the weather taking a clear turn towards fall, and knowing our winter comes sooner and lasts longer than our neighbour’s in the south, it is important for us to begin to think now about how we can best prepare ourselves for the colder months.

McIntyre warned of the “amplification of loneliness” winter will bring, in conversation with Global News. With COVID-19 restrictions in place for the foreseeable future, and the Ford government suggesting we’ll be limited to our social bubbles of ten at least until 2021, we need to think about how to care for ourselves when winter lessens our options for connection.

We’ve certainly learned new skills over the past six months. Many of us have begun to use video chat as a way of connecting with family and friends near and far. We throw around words like Zoom, WhatsApp and Facetime without blinking an eye. We’ve had to become more proactive in reaching out to one another, in negotiating social etiquette so everyone feels safe, we’ve had to learn a new kind of bluntness to protect ourselves and others. All these skills will help us navigate over this next year, but I want to encourage you to think about practices you can add to your toolbox for when you’re feeling tired, disconnected, and alone.

Here are some practices I have begun to think about in hopes of caring for my own mental health this next season:

Give thanks for “casual acquaintances”. My partner does all our grocery shopping, and he has a favourite cashier. He tries to shop when it’s quiet because he takes our toddler with him, and there is a cheerful 50-something woman who works cash at the same time that they shop. “Friends” is too strong a word, but over the past few months she has become a joyful part of his week, a routine connection to the outside world. It’s a small interaction, maybe five minutes a week, but it is significant. Having an outlook that focuses on gratitude, says UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, keeps us happier and healthier. So begin to look at those “casual acquaintances”—at the post office, at the doctor’s office, when you take your walks—as a source of connection and gratitude.

Do away with “false positivity”. It can be exhausting pretending that everything is okay, and at a time when we don’t have much energy leftover I say throw that “false positivity” out the window! I’m proud to be part of a faith tradition that makes lots of space for lament—space to be honest about our tough feelings. Cultivate relationships in your life where you don’t need to put on a happy-face. Focus your energy on people you can be honest with about how you’re doing, these are the ones that will fill you up.

Keep your comfort zone as wide as possible. Comfort zones aren’t static, but if we don’t stretch them out, just like muscles, they get tighter and stiffer. Try to keep pushing yourself to go for that drive or walk, to find weekly activities to do, whether they’re errands or hobbies. I definitely find it much harder to get out and do things, or see people, when I’ve had a week, or even a few days, where I haven’t left the house. If we’re intentional about keeping our comfort zones as wide as possible, it means we’ll be more likely to try something new when more things open up, and we won’t suddenly discover we spent an entire month only watching baking competitions on TV.

What are some of the ways you plan on staying connected this winter? Are there particular winter sports you’re excited to be able to participate in with others? I’d be interested to know, so if you see me on a walk around town I hope you’ll wave me down and let me know.

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