Facing a winter during the coronavirus pandemic

As we move through the next stages of the pandemic, we will keep sharing information about how you can support your mental health, and the wellbeing of your family and community. 

The Mental Health Foundation is part of the national mental health response during the coronavirus outbreak. Government advice designed to keep us safe is under constant review and will be different depending on where you live: more details and up to date information here.
In the last few weeks, it has become clear that the pandemic is going to be a longer-term challenge in our lives than perhaps we had first thought. 
 
Many of us were hoping that once lockdown eased a little that things would continue to return to normal gradually, until a vaccine and or better treatments were widely available.
 
In reality, it was always very likely that there would be an increase in cases of coronavirus in the autumn and winter and with seasonal flu that this would place a strain on the NHS. This is happening, and we have had to get used to some lockdown restrictions again.   
 
There is no escaping the fact that this is going to be a very difficult for a lot of us, and the impact will be greater for some than for others. 

The restrictions we face

As cases have increased, the restrictions we need to adopt to avoid infecting ourselves and others have focused on doing the basics well:
 
• Distancing, mask wearing, handwashing and avoiding crowded places
• Testing and self-isolating if we have symptoms or are asked to do so by authorities.
• Following specific local advice.  
 
Each of the four UK nations has taken a different approach to restrictions, locally and nationally. 
 
To find out what the rules are where you live, you are best to refer to your local authority website, or to visit the relevant national website listed here:
  • England: Lockdown has been reinstated for a four week period.
  • Wales: National and local restrictions, based on local council areas
  • Scotland: Five-tiered system of national and local restrictions, based on a local authority area 
  • Northern Ireland: National restrictions across Northern Ireland

What happens now?

We don’t know exactly what course the pandemic will take this winter, but we now know that we will probably have to keep up our efforts to control the virus for at least another six months. 
 
For many of us that includes significant festivals including Christmas, Diwali and Hannukah at which we’d normally be together with family and friends. It may be that this year the ways we celebrate and keep connected have to change. 
 
As we move into winter, many of us are feeling burned-out and tired with the restrictions we have had to follow. 
 
A key thing to remember is that whilst it may feel like we are going backwards, we are in a different time now. The thought of going back to the difficult times of April and May could be very upsetting for us – especially if we found things like home schooling very challenging, or we were not able to keep up any exercise or social contact. 
 
We may have new challenges – the dark nights, the prospect of a different kind of Christmas, and changes in the way jobs are supported for example – but we also have the valuable lessons we learned during lockdown, and a much greater understanding of the virus and how it can be treated. 
 
Governments across the UK are taking mental health seriously for adults and young people – for example prioritising schools remaining open, and enabling, where possible, face to face social connection to carry on even if that is outside. 

Where do you start if this is all too much?

Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind for our mental health is that we don’t know what course the pandemic will take – it’s hard to plan too far ahead, and it’s very easy to let what-ifs take over. 
 
If you are finding this time hard, you aren’t alone. The pandemic has enabled a lot of people to speak about their feelings – to loved ones, friends and even employers or folk in the queue to get into the shops. This is nobody’s fault – least of all yours. 
 
If you have been directly affected by the virus – perhaps by having coronavirus, losing a friend or family member, or losing your job or business – you’ll be dealing not just with the pandemic but also withgrief, fear, or financial concerns. There are specialist organisations that can help with all of these. 
 
Perhaps you were asked to shield during the lockdown in the summer because you or someone in your household is particularly at risk from the virus – or maybe you have a long-term mental health problem that has made the pandemic especially hard. There’s a risk that as people seek normality and urge everyone to get on with life, that the steps you need to take to stay safe and keep going become forgotten.
 
Kindness and compassion are key to us getting through the next six months. The evidence is clear that kindness and gratitude is good for our mental health – even when things are hardest. That’s kindness to others – for example helping in our community or not judging other people too harshly. It’s also kindness to ourselves – working out what we need to first keep going, and then to protect and improve our mental health. You can find out more about how to practice more deliberate kindness in our guide. 
 
Whenever we feel overwhelmed, the first thing to do is to stop, find our feet, and think about the next step - and the one after that. Pretty soon you’ll have walked further than you imagined. 

Ideas for protecting and supporting mental health this winter

Ten things you can do to protect your mental health:

1. Reach out for help as early as possible especially with things like debt or finances, or with your mental health. 

2. Have a routine and set short-term goals - planning for today, tomorrow, the next week. If you have big, difficult tasks on your  plate try breaking them up into chains of smaller, more manageable jobs. 

3. Build in more breaks and exercise into your schedule – our research has told us that walking and time in nature were the two things that most helped the nation cope with the stresses of the pandemic. We’ve published a free guide on how you can keep doing this.

4. Look at your sleeping habits – sleep is essential for our mental health and if you are having trouble because of worry there are things you can do to improve your sleep, from relaxation to not watching TV in bed.

5. Find the positives from lockdown - It could be things you did, or challenges you overcame. Ask yourself what was helpful then, and what you can take from that for now. If you can’t go out or feel isolated, perhaps it’s a good time to find an online book group, exercise class or even choir. If you can volunteer in your community, you can boost your mental health as well as helping others. 

6. Plan your finances this winter – including making sure you are getting any benefits you are entitled to and getting help with any debt concerns you may have.

7. Stay connected – whether that’s work colleagues, friends or family - stay connected with your family and friends even if you can’t see them. Make a special effort keep in touch with people you know are on their own and who may be struggling themselves – or who might be shielding and unable to join the fun outside. 

8. Find time for your needs - it can be easy to serve other people at work or at home, or to fill our diaries with commitments and activities that crowd out our own needs. Whether it’s booking leave from work, shutting the bathroom door for a shower or bath away from the kids, or getting out for a run alone – find something that works for you and make it happen.

9. Make friends with cold, dark days – if you think of winter as one of the regular seasons, perhaps it could be a time for reflection and doing more things like reading, relaxing, getting warm and cosy and recharging our batteries. When the days are darker and we can’t take our mood energy boosts from socialising in the sun, it may make sense to replace this with another energy-boosting activity like exercise or a hobby like cooking. Going out when it’s dark and cold might seem unappealing, but taking a break from our screens, and getting some natural light during the day can really help our mood. 

10. Give yourself a reward – it’s important to celebrate small wins – even if that’s just in your head. A win could be clearing a work task or getting through a tricky moment like a supermarket trip. It could just be getting up and dressed. A hot chocolate after a walk outside, a magazine or even a moment of peace on the sofa are all small rewards. 

Ten risks to our mental health during the pandemic:

1. Worrying about things we can’t control - none of us know what is going to happen in the next few months, so deal with you what you are able to. For today, you are doing your best and that is enough. Some people find mindfulness mediation a helpful way to stay in the moment.

2. Dwelling on gloomy “what if” conversations with friends - try and get out of rumination – chewing things over in your head. Watch for negative thought patterns and challenge them.

3. Paying too much attention to social media - there’s a lot of speculation about the virus – where it came from, if it is real, what the government is thinking. Try not to get dragged into debate. Don’t speculate and post material that criticises or blames people or can’t be verified. 

4. Watching too much news - too much coverage can make us all anxious and the pandemic isn’t the only tricky news story in the media this winter. Unless you have to, perhaps look at one bulletin a day.

5. Judging other people’s behaviours - don’t worry about how others are responding to the restrictions, you can’t do anything about them. It’s easy to let our fear or anxiety come out as anger towards others, gossip, or even angry outbursts. It’s hard, but try to lead with kindness even if people seem to be behaving irresponsibly. If you feel you need to say something, do so politely.  

6. Neglecting your health - we often put a brave face on when times are hard and at the moment people aren’t coming forward as often with health worries that might become significant issues. If you have symptoms of coronavirus, get a test. If you have other health worries – see your GP – lumps, pain, prescription renewals and routine blood tests all still need to happen. Whether it’s physical or mental health the NHS is still open and available. 

7. Putting up walls - when we are busy with work or struggling with family things it’s easy to but blinkers on and withdraw from friends and family. If you feel yourself pulling back from work, or people bring it to your attention – use this as an opportunity to look again at your wellbeing. 

8. Getting pushed around by others - sometimes when we feel a bit lost or overwhelmed we can allow ourselves to be directed by others. Sometimes that’s a good thing – our friends and family help us through. It can be hard to resist friends who want you to break rules on social distancing or meeting for example. It can also lead to feeling trapped in toxic relationships or obliged to help people that aren’t good for you.

9. Going to excess - our research has told us that some people are using alcohol, overeating, over spending and illegal drugs to cope with stress. Try and keep an eye on your drinking, what you are eating and what you are spending. If things are getting of control, find a helpline or speak to someone you trust.

10. Losing your balance - we’re juggling life, work and family at the moment. There’s a real risk that if we lose the balance of the different strands we can end up in trouble. Try and find a balance between work, home and personal needs and stick to it. You may also want to think about screen time – making sure that you ration video calls if working from home, and tear yourself away from your phone. Check out our tips on family life and working life during the pandemic.

If you feel you need help, ask - don’t stay quiet and say nothing 

In England, Public Health England has developed explicit guidance on mental health during the pandemic.  
 
If you want to develop a personalised plan for supporting your mental health you can visit PHE Every Mind Matters website, developed in collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation. 
 
In Scotland you can visit Clear your Head for more good ways to support your mental health. 
 
And if you need to talk to someone urgently and confidentially you can call the Samaritans for free on 116 123 at any time.