Winter can bring the beauty of freshly fallen snow and bright, crisp days. But the season can also leave some people feeling a little down, and the COVID-19 pandemic may only exacerbate the situation.
“This year we’re worried about how to handle continued social isolation when the weather keeps us indoors and the pandemic makes indoor gatherings unsafe,” says Vickie Mays, PhD, a professor of psychology at UCLA.
If you’re starting to feel your mood slipping, let that be your call to action. “Making plans will help you stay connected and mentally healthy, so you can head things off before they get bad,” says Brian D. Carpenter, PhD, faculty lead for educational initiatives at the Center for Aging at Washington University in St. Louis. These 12 daily strategies can help you take control of your mood so that you can stay sane—and safe.
Eat for energy. When your energy crashes, your mood often takes a nosedive, too. “To keep energy up, choose a meal that’s digested slowly,” says Dana Hunnes, PhD, senior clinical dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “That prevents a spike in glucose [blood sugar], followed by a quick drop.” Because glucose is the main fuel for your muscles and brain, an abrupt reduction can leave you feeling fatigued or irritable. Foods high in sugars or refined carbs can cause glucose spikes, while whole grains, healthy protein, and fruit or vegetables release glucose steadily. Think oatmeal with nut butter and apples, or a scrambled egg with avocado on whole-wheat toast.
Make a plan for the day. “An unstructured day is a recipe for feeling purposeless, and that can lead to depression,” says Christine Whelan, PhD, a clinical professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Make a to-do list. The tasks don’t have to be big or complicated. “Acknowledge that the things you accomplish are purposeful and matter to you,” she says. Completing small tasks—like finally sewing on that missing coat button, paying bills, or finishing a puzzle—can provide a sense of satisfaction.
Let in the light. “Getting some sunlight early in the day helps set your circadian rhythms, tells your body to wake up, and even helps you sleep better at night,” Whelan says. If you can, go for a 15-minute walk or bundle up and sit outside. Time inside near a sunny window can help, too.
Experience nature. Research has shown that being in nature—woods, gardens, parks, even the backyard—lowers stress levels and improves mood. If you can’t get outdoors, just seeing greenery outside a window—or even cultivating houseplants—can help, according to some research.
Exercise with others. Going for a walk with a friend is a good way to be social while you’re getting some exercise. If the weather makes it unpleasant or unsafe to exercise outdoors, see whether your local gym or recreation center offers live online classes, where you work out with an instructor and other people you can see and interact with.
Snack smart. “You want something that’s about 150 to 250 calories and has a balance of healthy fats, fiber, and protein,” Hunnes says. (Try these snack suggestions from CR’s nutritionists.) Fruits, vegetables, and foods rich in healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats have been linked to improved mood. Eating lots of processed carbohydrates and sugars is associated with depression. Good midafternoon munchies include a handful of nuts, a piece of fruit, or a few slices of cheese with whole-grain crackers. Plain yogurt with sliced fruit is an appropriate option, too, in part because it contains “good” probiotic bacteria that can support a healthy gut microbiome. Mood-related brain chemicals called neurotransmitters are actually produced in the gut.
Stay hydrated. Older adults don’t have the same level of thirst that they did when they were younger, so they often aren’t drinking enough, according to Hunnes. “You can end up with an afternoon energy slump if you’re a little dehydrated,” she says. If you don’t feel like drinking water, try a warming cup or two of herbal tea instead.
Give back. Many of the problems you may be facing this winter—such as feeling isolated—are fairly universal among other older adults, especially during the pandemic. “The best way to make yourself happiest is to help other people,” Whelan says. Reaching out to others and finding ways to contribute to your community can go a long way toward improving your outlook. Sew face masks and donate them, organize a food drive in your neighborhood, or become a pen pal with someone in a nursing home. Or contact a local charity that does work that’s meaningful to you and see whether it has any opportunities to do volunteer work from home.
Make connections. Try to get creative with how you interact with family and friends during Zoom calls or other virtual visits. Read a bedtime story to your grandchildren, play a game or do a craft project with a friend, or suggest that family members share memories and photos from a trip they’ve taken. “Having an agenda—rather than just coming together in an unstructured way—helps breathe new life into the virtual format,” Carpenter says.
Eat for sleep. Experts recommend limiting alcohol intake and not eating within 2 to 3 hours of going to bed, because both can disrupt sleep. Caffeine can stay in your system for hours, making you feel edgy and possibly interfering with sleep. Skip it in the evening (and ideally anytime after noon). And because research shows that a Mediterranean diet—which focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, and fish—may have positive effects on mental health, choose a dinner that fits this healthy eating pattern.
Take a break from the news. The term doomscrolling (coined in the early days of the pandemic) refers to the practice of reading endless bad news on your phone, computer, or tablet. “Turning off your devices—or TV—gives you a much needed break from upsetting news stories,” Whelan says. This is especially important before bed. Bad news can cause anxiety, and the blue light your electronics give off will interfere with your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep.
Set the stage for a restful night. “Sleep can be difficult for people as they get older,” Mays says. “But don’t just accept it as a part of aging that you can’t change your sleep habits.” Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. And to help your brain and body relax at the end of the day and prepare for sleep, try adopting a calming ritual, such as a warm bath, meditation, or tuning into an app that reads you a soothing story.
Need More Help? Try Teletherapy.
If you find yourself losing interest in doing things you love, experiencing appetite or sleep changes, or withdrawing from others, you may want to reach out to a mental-health professional. The pandemic has made in-person meetings difficult, but in a survey by the American Psychological Association, 92 percent of clinicians said they were seeing patients online or doing phone sessions. “Research shows that online psychotherapy is just as helpful as meeting in person,” says Brian D. Carpenter, PhD, of Washington University. “Most insurance companies [and Medicare] have been very responsive to the pandemic and are reimbursing for telephone and virtual visits.”
To find a therapist near you, ask your primary care physician for a referral or search the APA’s website (locator.apa.org) for one. Teletherapy also makes it easier to “try out” a few therapists to find the right fit.
Video and phone sessions can feel more casual than going to a therapist’s office. But it’s important to approach these meetings in the same way. Find a private spot (without distractions, like pets or laundry that needs folding) that’s conducive to having a focused conversation.
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