It’s Going to Be a Long Winter — Stockpile Your Coping Strategies

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What would you do if you knew the world was about to end? Like any doomsday prepper, you’d probably stock up on the supplies you would need to survive the impending catastrophe: the nonperishable food, the bottled water, the first-aid kit.

Well, it’s not quite the apocalypse, but as we approach the darker, colder days of our pandemic winter, life as we’ve come to know it these past several months — our tenuous grasp on something resembling normalcy — is coming to an end. And a prepper mindset could help you make it through the long, isolated days ahead, only instead of stockpiling cans of beans, you’re building up your supply of coping strategies.

Natalie Dattilo, a psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says emotional doomsday prepping has a pretty simple scientific basis. Your own stress cuts you off from your resources because your brain can’t easily learn new things when it’s in fight-or-flight mode. “Under stress, the thinking centers of the brain basically go offline, and we don’t retain the ability to think clearly or problem-solve,” Dattilo says.

If you know you’ll need to cope with harder times down the road — say, during the isolation of a long winter — start learning and implementing new strategies now. Your stressed-out brain will thank you.

Rehearse relaxing

When you’re in a high-stress situation, your amygdala, the brain’s threat-detection system, “hijacks” your functioning, and all the mental energy that would go toward decision-making or rational thinking is diverted to getting you out of danger. That’s helpful when you’re trying to outrun a bear but not so helpful when you need to work or take care of kids. Dattilo says you can train your brain not to rush into a full-blown stress response, but you have to practice that emotional regulation ahead of time.

To use a sports analogy, when NBA players shoot a three-pointer enough times during practice, they hardly have to think about how to sink a shot during the game. Coaxing your brain back to a relaxed response is similar. Whatever you practice during nonstressful times will remain intact for the high-stress moment — kind of like installing new hardware in your mind.

When you feel yourself getting slightly stressed, take some deep breaths; Dattilo says any type of breathwork helps. Go for a walk. Meditate. Think about the activities you’ve turned to in the past to calm yourself down, and do them regularly now, when the stakes are lower. Eventually, the mental path from the action to a more relaxed state will feel like second nature.

“Anything you do to help regulate the nervous system, it’s like training a muscle,” Dattilo says. “It may take you 15–20 minutes to calm yourself down now, but over time, just thinking about being calm can help activate a relaxation response.”

Jump-start new routines

Ednesha Saulsbury, a Manhattan-based therapist and host of the BeREAL podcast, says mustering up motivation when you’re under stress can be just as hard as learning new things. So make it easy on yourself by kick-starting the mental-health routines you may need later.

Habitual exercise, a nutritious diet, good sleep, and meditation and mindfulness can all stave off an anxious mood. Whatever you choose, make sure to start incorporating it into your day before you actually need it. “When winter comes, you’ll have 100 reasons not to get up and do it, so make it part of your life now, when you have the energy and motivation,” she says.

Saulsbury says she’s started signing up for regular workout classes now while she actually has the desire to get up and go so that they’ll be a familiar part of her routine by the time the winter blues set in. Every time you get up and do the thing, picture yourself trodding down a pathway in your brain. The more you do it, the more natural it’ll feel.

You should also build fun and novelty into your routine. Katie Lear, a therapist in North Carolina, says planning pursuits that lend a sense of accomplishment or mastery can be especially helpful. For example, you could enroll in an online class leading to a certificate, do an in-depth home improvement project, or even join an online book club. The important thing, Lear says, is to imbue your days with a sense of purpose.

Build your support system

Saulsbury suggests putting some thought now into what you want your wintertime community to look like, even if that community is purely digital and even if it’s only one or two trusted loved ones.

While having a few close people “on call” can help, Salisbury says it might be more beneficial to make your “pod” official. That way, you can start building meaningful relational capital along with establishing parameters you feel comfortable with (like, a regular phone call instead of meeting in person or the occasional masked, outdoor walk).

Especially if you’re prone to depression or anxiety, it could also help to start a relationship with a therapist now. (Not sure where to start? Ask your therapy-going friends for recommendations or call your insurance, if you have it, about who’s in your network.) That way, when struggles arise, you’ll know exactly who to call.

Practice arguing your thoughts

Learning how to reframe and challenge unhelpful thinking patterns now will make it easier to escape a doom-and-gloom thought cycle later, says New York-based therapist Kara Lissy.

If you notice that you’re fixated on overly black-and-white, catastrophic thoughts, which Lissy says are called “cognitive distortions,” practice “arguing” with them. For example, let’s say you find yourself regularly thinking, “Every day is so terrible.” Try following that up with a rational-but-honest thought, like “Sure, today is hard, but I had some good moments yesterday, and I might have more tomorrow.”

When you rehearse realistic but optimistic self-talk now, it’ll be easier to escape a negative thought loop later. And, with a little practice, These times will feel less like the end of the world and more like a really sucky, but temporary, part of it.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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