How can people combat isolation as cooler weather drives them indoors?
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.
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.
Should people anticipate – and prepare for – a “grieving” period for the lifestyle they enjoyed in the warmer months?
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.
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.
How can people prepare mentally for a change in the upcoming holidays?
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.
What self-care measures do you recommend?
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.
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.
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 5 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.
When should you seek professional help?
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 whether at one of the Rutgers support helplines or elsewhere, such as through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association’s helpline (800-662-4357).