After nearly a year of disrupted plans and social distance, the current routine can still feel unsettled.
“Most of us did not anticipate that this heightened period of stress would be going on for 10 months and even longer in the future,” said Terrie Moffitt, Nannerl O. Keohane University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. “And there is still some uncertainty about when we will get out of this predicament.”
And at this time of year – during the winter and after the holidays – there’s typically a bit of a flat period, Moffitt added, once the celebrations are done and we return to school and to work. The days are short and cold, which also means people likely are not getting enough sunlight to strengthen the immune system and boost mood.
“We should all recognize that as a period of high risk for feeling depressed and anxious – for everyone,” Moffitt said. “Understand that this is temporary. Winter does go away, and spring will come.”
Here are some suggestions to help stay healthy and safe in the coming months.
Find Control Where You Can
Because the pandemic is lasting longer than our expectations, this can make self-care difficult.
“People are very good at changing behaviors in the short term, but maintaining those changes week after week and month after month is where the challenge comes in,” said Kyle Bourassa, a clinical psychology researcher and a postdoctoral scholar at Duke’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development.
His research examines how changes in behavior might improve health among people who experience stressful events. Part of his training also focuses on values – individual beliefs about what’s important.
“We should remind ourselves why we’re wearing a mask or distancing from people we hope to keep safe,” Bourassa said. “We’re not doing this just because we were told we have to, but because we choose to in order to protect those around us.”
It’s also good to be intentional about socializing, relaxation and exercise, he said, especially in this time period when it’s harder to get outside.
“One thing I like to emphasize is that we often cannot change how we feel,” Bourassa said. “But we can change how we behave and what we choose to do every day.”
The more that people can be self-aware and pay attention to their own habits, the better, Bourassa added.
“If you’re struggling, there are resources available to support you,” Bourassa said.
When socializing, meet outside or keep the windows open, wear a mask, wash your hands, avoid large gatherings and stay home if you’re not feeling well. Follow the Duke Compact.
“You can visit others, and you can get together with key people,” Moffitt said. “Having control over your life and decide when you can be socially connected with others is so important.”
Moffitt also advised creating a written contract that you will reach out to someone every day. And then, make a short FaceTime call or send an Instagram message.
“Very often people think, I don’t want to bother anyone, so I’ll just sit here quietly and lonely,” Moffitt said. “But if everyone else is feeling the same, how could we fix that?”
Contact each day will go a far way towards keeping the human support system and social network going, she added. You should also choose to contact people who make you feel uplifted, Moffitt said, and it’s fine to decide that a relationship is too upsetting at this moment and create some space between yourself and the person causing stress.
“There are some close friends or loved ones that you might decide to not meet with for a while, until the pandemic eases, because it brings too much stress and conflict,” Moffitt said. “And that’s healthy.”
For students, Moffitt encouraged them to make one person they contact a faculty member. They’re feeling the same effects of isolation as students.
“I love talking to students, and other faculty feel the same way. That’s why we do this job,” Moffitt said. “Reach out to a professor.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about harming themselves, call 9-1-1.