A blip in the weather has the temperature up to 20 degrees warmer than normal this week. But that won’t last.
Winter is coming. Or, at least, colder weather. That, combined with the time change that brings sunset earlier each day, will have an impact on everyone’s mental health. When you throw in COVID-19 health warnings and restrictions that can lead to isolation, there is concern.
So said Frank Ghinassi, CEO of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and a health care professional recently honored on the 2020 ROI Influencers: Health Care list.
Ghinassi offered ways people can stay socially connected and discussed when they should seek professional help for mental health concerns. And he specifically addressed handling the holidays.
“People do not have to break those food and gathering traditions,” he said. “They can prepare food in smaller quantities for their immediate household, even if it is just themselves, and join others through technology as they prepare.”
And you don’t necessarily need alcohol to enjoy the holidays, Ghinassi said. In fact, he said alcohol consumption is one thing that should be closely monitored.
“Resist the temptation to have a glass of wine at 3:30 because you can,” he said. “Increased use of alcohol can creep up on you, especially if there is no one else in the house to check on you. Do a self-check: Are you using more alcohol than you were a year ago? If you are concerned, you can call support lines anonymously.”
(Need to talk to someone? Reach out to one of the Rutgers support helplines or elsewhere, such as through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association’s helpline at 800-662-4357.)
The following Q&A came from Rutgers officials. It was slightly modified for content and clarity:
Q: How can people combat isolation as cooler weather drives them indoors?
A: Maintaining a level of social contact is going to be critical. People who live alone, regardless of whether they are young or old, are at particular risk. One solution is to stay in touch with family and friends, whether it is over social media, through video or over the phone. Maybe share a cup of coffee with someone over the phone in the morning. Write letters: Sending and receiving them can be very rewarding.
If you live with your family, do activities, such as board games or listen to audio broadcasts, as a family, rather than watch TV. Take a walk in the cold with others.
Q: Who is at most risk?
A: The people I worry about the most are those who live in unsafe environments or where there is domestic violence. I encourage people in these situations to reach out to agencies or their case managers.
Q: How can people prepare mentally for a change in the upcoming holidays?
A: The traditions of the holiday season are going to be radically altered. This time is associated with gathering — people travel to see family, host family in their homes, something that will be dramatically reduced.
This is a time to take refuge in whatever customs and cultures associated with that. People do not have to break those food and gathering traditions. They can prepare food in smaller quantities for their immediate household, even if it is just themselves, and join others through technology as they prepare.
Every Easter, my family’s tradition is to have up to 50 family members gather at one house and make frittatas, an egg-cheese-and-pepperoni dish that is traditional in Italian American culture. This year, we kept the tradition alive through a Zoom call during which about 30 of us prepared the meal and then ate it together.
Q: The holidays can lift our periods. Then, there are the other times. Should people anticipate and prepare for a ‘grieving’ period for the lifestyle they enjoyed in the warmer months?
A: This is an appropriate term. Missing things that made our lives pleasurable is normal, natural and to be expected. Suppressing or ignoring the fact that we are grieving could make the situation worse. Acknowledging that grieving activities we loved, such as going to theaters, parties and restaurants, is legitimate, expected and — here’s the key word — normal. This is a process. We need to accept that we are in a highly unusual time; a pandemic is something that people haven’t dealt with on this level for a century.
Q: Is this grieving a slow-and-steady process?
A: People should realize that grieving ebbs and flows, and other circumstances such as fatigue, work stress, family conflict and illness could exacerbate it. They should seek out the support of family and friends and, if necessary, professionals or religious officials, if they feel their grieving is sustained without seeing any reduction after four to six weeks.
Like echoes on a wall of a canyon, grief should get a little softer over time.
Q: What self-care measures do you recommend?
A: Return to the basics: Drink five to six glasses of water a day to stay hydrated, as the heat can dry your house, eat healthy foods like fruits and vegetables and maintain a consistent sleep/wake cycle, which is essential for sustaining mood and physical health. Your Monday through Friday sleep cycle schedule should not differ much from your Saturday/Sunday sleep cycle schedule.
Plan for regular physical activity. If you are not comfortable going to a gym and do not have equipment, you can used canned goods as weights, use YouTube videos to guide you in exercises or meditation. Build in a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise five days a week.
Finally, make a list of things that give you pleasure — movies, crafts, reading, puzzles, exercise, cooking, board games, listening to music, social calls — and do at least two things every day.
Q: Then, there’s alcohol use. Discuss the impulse to self-medicate in that fashion?
A: Reduce the urge to drink alcohol. Although a glass of wine with dinner four to five nights a week is not something to worry about, resist the temptation to have a glass of wine at 3:30 because you can. Increased use of alcohol can creep up on you, especially if there is no one else in the house to check on you. Do a self-check: Are you using more alcohol than you were a year ago? If you are concerned, you can call support lines anonymously.
Q: When should you seek professional help?
A: This is a matter of time and severity. If you get into what feels like a slump, and that lasts more than four weeks without a lot of relief, it’s a signal you are not snapping out of it.
Look for disruptions in your life. Are you finding it difficult to get and stay asleep? Are there changes in your eating habits? Have you lost your feeling of hopefulness for the future? Are you disinterested in things that used to bring you joy?
In more severe cases: Do you have feelings that ‘It wouldn’t be the worst thing if I didn’t wake up tomorrow?’ or do you have thoughts of harming yourself or other people? That is a sign to contact a professional.
Q: Where can someone turn?
A: You can reach out to one of the Rutgers support helplines or elsewhere, such as through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association’s helpline at 800-662-4357.