Podcast: How to Mentally Prepare for a Pandemic Winter

Listen to a leading cognitive therapy expert’s advice on how to cope and build resilience.

pandemic winter image
pandemic winter image

With the days growing shorter, the weather turning colder, and the COVID-19 crisis continuing to rage across the country, many are bracing for a pandemic winter and what it may bring. The pandemic has already taken a psychological toll on many Americans, with recent data from the Census Bureau revealing 1 in 3 shows signs of clinical anxiety and depression.

Yet even amid the challenges posed by the pandemic, there are ways to maintain a positive mindset and build resilience, according to Dr. Robert Leahy, an attending psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and a national expert in cognitive therapy. “We have to normalize feeling frustrated, feeling irritated, feeling a little bit depressed,” Dr. Leahy told us in our new episode of Health Matters Today. “You have a right to those feelings, but even if you have a right to those feelings, you also have a right to do things that will help you cope better with those feelings.”

Here, Dr. Leahy shares his top tips for protecting your mental health and preparing for a pandemic winter. For our full discussion, listen to our episode of Health Matters Today.

Don’t hibernate this winter

I don’t think that harboring in place is necessary in the winter or any time. Dress for the weather and go outside. Go for walks, meet people outside at a social distance, go to the park, or go to the street corner and stand 6 feet apart. Wear masks, and laugh together. Be willing to tolerate a little bit more discomfort, so you become resilient.

Being resilient means tolerating what I call constructive discomfort — something that is uncomfortable that moves you forward, like exercising or watching your diet. It may be uncomfortable, but discomfort is not going to kill you. In fact, it could be that isolation and passivity could harm you. So get out and connect.

Resilient people reevaluate their expectations and then focus on new goals.

Adjust your expectations

Part of frustration is expectation. If I expect that I can do everything I did before the pandemic, I’ll be frustrated. Change the expectation to match reality, which is different now. I’m not going into my office and seeing my patients and staff for a while. But I can make the best of what I do have, which doesn’t mean it’s perfect or that I have to love every minute of it.

Maybe you can make it better by having a more productive day or reaching out to friends or being grateful. There’s always room for improvement, but there’s also the reality that things could be a lot worse as well. Rather than focusing on what you cannot do, it’s valuable to focus on what you can do.

Schedule “worry time”

Many people who worry find that if a negative thought appears, they spend a lot of time with it and dwell on it. They may feel helpless in the face of that negative thought. So I encourage my patients to set aside 15 to 20 minutes in the afternoon and make an appointment with their worry. If you have persistent worries during the day, write them down and tell yourself, “I’ll get to this around 3 p.m.” When it’s time to worry, ask yourself if your negative thought is productive or unproductive.

There is a difference between productive and unproductive worry. Productive worry leads to taking action on something you can do today. For example, what can you do to reduce your risk? Wash your hands — do all the things that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. That is productive action. Unproductive worry is asking yourself, “What if …?” For example, “What if I’m walking down the street and someone coughs on me?” These things are beyond our control, and the worry is unproductive.

I’m not telling people not to worry, but if you’re going to worry, set aside a time so it doesn’t consume you, and then turn it into productive action.

“Rather than focusing on what you cannot do, it’s valuable to focus on what you can do.”

— Dr. Robert Leahy

Keep a schedule

If you’re reading disaster stories online, you’re likely to be pretty pessimistic and anxious. On the other hand, having tasks that you schedule and accomplish will help you get your mind off the pandemic winter or off your anxieties, and you wake up in the morning and feel like you have a purpose for getting up.

Lots of folks have lost their usual routines, and that unstructured time can also lead to rumination and passivity, high risk factors for depression. Schedule your day, down to the hour. At the end of the day, check things off and make a to-do list for the next day, so you can look forward to things. Create a set of goals for the week and for the month, then make some longer-term goals.

The reason I suggest scheduling them: If you wait around to feel motivated to do it, you’ll just lie there, ruminate, be passive, and get very little done. Don’t wait to feel inspired or motivated — schedule it and do it. Make it an obligation to yourself.

Connect with others (even if not face-to-face)

Reach out to people you haven’t connected with in a while. Actually use your smartphone as a telephone by calling somebody and talking to them. Take a proactive rather than a passive approach, engage rather than avoid, and connect rather than pull away or isolate — these are the key things.

We often underestimate how important it is to express connection, love, and gratitude.
While the holidays may look different this year, you can still connect and show your gratitude by telling people you love them, which will also help you get through this pandemic winter.

Robert Leahy, Ph.D., is an attending psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and a clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. He is the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and the author of The Worry Cure.

Listen to the full episode and read a transcript of the conversation.

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