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Experts say these simple tips can help nourish your mental health and keep you from developing cabin fever while you stay indoors this winter. Vesnaandjic/Getty Images
  • As stay-at-home orders take place during the winter months, finding ways to avoid cabin fever can be difficult.
  • Making a list of things to do can give you a sense of control during this time.
  • Keeping your mind and body busy can help you make it through lockdown.

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COVID-19 cases are on the rise as the winter months settle in.

As stay-at-home orders take effect, concerns about coping are top of mind.

“As we have seen since the onset of the pandemic, social distancing guidelines meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have the unintended effect of isolating people and potentially increasing loneliness for some vulnerable people,” Derek Richards, PhD, psychologist and chief science officer at SilverCloud Health, told Healthline.

“The recent surge in cases coupled with the change in weather, decreased daylight hours, and less socialization are expected to exacerbate feelings of hardship and distress,” he said.

The good news?

There are ways to nourish your mental health and help curb cabin fever while you stay indoors. Here are some ideas to consider.

Because our sense of time during the pandemic is distorted, Dr. Michael Rich, founder of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, says time feels longer than it did prepandemic.

“One thing that can help adults cope is to not give up all sense of routine. Even if you don’t have an external schedule, create one so that we continue to feel that we’re accomplishing something. Additionally, having a sense of schedule allows us to get quality sleep and be functional during the day,” Rich told Healthline.

To ease the disappointment of looking at a blank calendar as more and more events get canceled, Dr. Leela Magavi, psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California, recommends writing down a list of new activities.

“Create a schedule of tasks and fun-filled activities in advance to gain a sense of control and alleviate anxiety. These schedules can include allotted time for exercise, mindfulness, socialization, and learning,” she told Healthline.

Every time you’re tempted to glance at your blank calendar, look at your new schedule of tasks instead.

While your social calendar once kept you from finishing your to-do list, now’s the time to tackle it.

Make a list of all the indoor projects you’ve put off, such as cleaning closets, purging cabinets, clearing junk drawers, painting, creating picture albums, and more.

“The satisfaction and pride that comes from accomplishing a task is motivating and can spark further creativity… Take some time to finish it up and find new projects that encourage you to rediscover old passions,” Richards said.

If you’re able to lend a hand to family, friends, or neighbors who can’t grocery shop, shovel snow, walk their dog, or get to a medical appointment, doing so can reap benefits for them and you.

“Doing a good deed for someone helps release those feel-good chemicals in our bodies and is good for both mental and physical health… Even the smallest acts can have a big impact,” Richards said.

Rich adds the true value of relationships is having someone you can be authentic with.

“In other words, people with whom we can show our weaknesses and fears, and they compensate with their strengths. It is through helping others that we’re going to help ourselves,” he said.

Additionally, altruism has a built-in reward system: gratitude.

“People are most thankful for those who exercise kindness through some act,” Richards said.

While lockdown and wintertime make it tempting to avoid exercising, especially if your gym has temporarily or permanently closed, push yourself to get up and move every day.

“Rather than using the extra time at home to remain in front of your desk, sleep, or sit on the couch, use the time to move your body and stay active,” Richards said.

He suggests bundling up and walking outside with a friend while following COVID-19-related guidelines, or engaging with a friend for a virtual exercise class.

“Exercise of any kind releases serotonin and endorphins that promote happiness and cultivate a healthier lifestyle,” Richards said.

To maintain energy and motivation, Magavi recommends establishing a sleep routine and maintaining a balanced diet.

Richards points out a correlation between winter months and mental well-being characterized by symptoms such as oversleeping, changes in appetite, weight gain, and tiredness or low energy.

“These feelings can impinge on the life and emotional states of an individual, which can then be projected onto, and inevitably interrupt, their personal, professional, and home life,” Richards said.

As you stay indoors more, Magavi suggests paying attention to how much vitamin D you’re getting.

“Individuals with low levels of vitamin D may experience fatigue, and thus vitamin D repletion may improve individuals’ energy level. Some studies suggest an association between vitamin D deficiency and depression, although causality has not been established,” Magavi said.

As you practice self-care, add breathing exercises to your day, too.

“Taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths and stretching intermittently throughout the day can release stress,” Magavi said.

When you wake up every morning, drum up a positive thought before you get out of bed.

“Listing positive affirmations in the morning can help individuals start their day on a positive note,” Magavi said.

Richards agrees, noting that a positive mindset is a key contributor in preventing poor mental health.

“Especially during these times where negative feelings about oneself or regarding the state of the world may surface more frequently, now is a pivotal time to practice habits that foster happiness and promote gratification,” he said.

To help adapt a positive mindset, he suggests journaling about one positive thought every day.

“By taking notice of your positive thoughts and experiences, you help to manifest these into existence, which in turn not only makes them pragmatic, but encourages you to adopt a lens of gratitude,” Richards said.

Keeping a gratitude diary can also foster positive thoughts.

“[Before] sleeping, record three things you are grateful for that day. They can be small items, such as a talk with a friend, being grateful for a lovely dinner, or being appreciative of achieving a good day at work,” Richards said.

As much of our lives have quickly shifted into the digital space, including work and school activities as well as socializing, Rich says finding balance is key.

“Think about what we are consuming in terms of screens the way that we think about food. In other words, we should think about media diet just as we think about diet. As with nutrition, there are things you don’t want to eat too much or can’t be eating all the time,” Rich said.

This goes for content you consume online as well as in the context that it’s being consumed.

“Where is it appropriate and where is it not? For example, Thanksgiving or Christmas can be an opportunity for having a screen at the dinner table to connect with grandma or grandpa online. So screens, instead of being a distraction from having a meal, become part of it and the way that we connect with each other,” Rich said.

Connecting with friends and family virtually is an option, especially when isolation becomes overwhelming.

“Scheduling regular video chats with friends and family members could alleviate anxiety and feelings of loneliness,” Magavi said.

She also encourages joining online support groups to meet others with similar interests.