mental health

How to Maintain Your Sanity During a Winter From Hell

Photo: Lucasfilm/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

This winter has been insanely brutal for a big swath of the country: New York’s monuments are freezing over, Boston is literally buried in snow, and cities like Cleveland, Philly, and D.C. are experiencing their coldest temperatures since the 1990s. While some are embracing their inner child and taking the opportunity to treat the winter like one giant snow day — I’m looking at you, #BostonBlizzardChallenger people — for most, this has been an extremely difficult period.

What has made it particularly bad, especially in places like Boston, has been the interruption of normal routines. The relentless snow-pummeling has led to an increasing loss of control over daily life for many Northeasterners: Canceled trains, unexpected days off (which can mean huge income hits for those who get paid by the hour), and loss of power have made any attempt at riding out the season via normal routines pretty futile, which in turn can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.

To get some tips on how to survive one of the worst winters in recorded history, Science of Us emailed Rachel Merson, a clinical psychologist from Boston University who specializes in anxiety and related disorders — and who is experiencing this snowpocalypse firsthand.

In order to manage these uncomfortable emotions, it’s important for people to think about finding ways they can increase their sense of control,” she explained in an email. “One’s emotions, behaviors, and thoughts are inextricably linked. Thus, though we may not be able to do anything to change the 90-plus inches of snow on the ground, we can change our way of relating to the snow, both behaviorally and cognitively, thereby giving us more control and reducing our stress and negative emotions.”

Easier said than done, of course. Here’s some of Merson’s specific advice:

  • Stay active: This type of weather causes us to withdraw interpersonally and become more sedentary physically, both of which feed into downward emotional spirals. In fact, an evidence-based treatment for depression is behavioral activation, which emphasizes engagement in activity as one method of enhancing mood and reducing social isolation. So, on the next snow day, even if you are stuck in the house, turn off the TV and do something active and reinforcing. If it is safe to leave the house, get out for a while. Stay connected to friends and family.
  • Be kind to yourself: You may not be able to do anything about the two-hour commute that should take 30 minutes, but if you go into it prepared, you can make it more manageable. As much as possible, build extra time into your schedule to reduce the stress of sitting in traffic and/or waiting for the train. Think about how you can treat yourself during this time — splurge for a fancy drink and pastry at Starbucks, download some new music to listen to, bring a book you’ve been looking forward to reading.
  • Beware of the downward spiral of negative thinking: When struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression, it is easy to fall into “thinking traps” — making overly catastrophic and at times unrealistic interpretations of situations. So challenge yourself to look at the situation you are facing from another perspective and find a silver lining. Focus on something positive, even if it is something small — for example, your children’s excitement at seeing so much snow. Don’t let yourself ruminate, or think over and over and over again about everything that feels like it is going wrong.
  • Ask for help: For better or worse, we are all dealing with these storms together, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. We often pride ourselves on being autonomous and independent, but not only can turning to others for support or assistance help you feel less isolated and stressed, helping others is another mood booster, so you may just unknowingly be helping someone else in the process!

Obviously these tips aren’t cure-alls, particularly for folks facing serious mental illness or financial distress as a result of the snow. But her main point — that to a certain extent we can control our reactions to very difficult situations — is a useful one to keep in mind as this endless winter grinds on.

How to Maintain Sanity During a Winter From Hell