December 22, 2020

How to Stay Healthy During the 2020 Winter Season

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives, and been stressful and isolating for most of us. We can try to use this holiday season as a moment of lightness, lifting our spirits in small ways after a year that will go down in history for its challenges and hardship.

In doing so, we can make health and safety a priority, taking steps to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy, and able to enjoy the holidays. In terms of Covid itself, we all want to avoid catching or spreading it, and to be prepared in the event of developing symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that the safest way to enjoy the holidays this year is to celebrate at home with the people you live with. “Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading Covid-19 or the flu,” its website states.

It urges us to modify our holiday plans to reduce the spread during any small gatherings. For example, the risk is raised if there is a high level of cases in the gathering location, as well as in the areas where attendees are coming from. This information can be found on local health department websites or the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker County View (see below). 

Visitors should take extra care when travelling, as airports, bus stations, train stations, public transport, and gas stations could pose a risk of exposure. 

Outdoor gatherings are lower risk - if chilly - as are gatherings of shorter durations and with fewer people. The CDC does not set a maximum number of attendees but says, “The size of a holiday gathering should be determined based on the ability of attendees from different households to stay 6 feet apart, wear masks, wash hands, and follow state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations.”

Of course, anyone with symptoms of Covid, who is waiting for a test, or who has been exposed to someone with Covid in the last 14 days unfortunately must stay away, as well as those with certain medical conditions which put them at increased risk of severe illness. The CDC guidance adds, “Use of alcohol or drugs may alter judgment and make it more difficult to practice Covid-19 safety measures.”

Which brings us to other health considerations...

It’s always sensible to be aware of how much alcohol you are consuming, for numerous reasons, not least of which are the dangers of drinking and driving. For health purposes, and to prevent discomfort the following day, drink a glass of water between alcoholic drinks which helps to dilute the alcohol, slowing down absorption and countering its dehydrating effect. This also helps fill you up, so there’s less temptation to snack. 

The urge to throw caution to the wind at this time of year can be strong, with so much irresistible food available. Many people feel anxious around holiday season eating and worry about the impact on their waistline. While it is absolutely possible, given the lack of routine and indulgence, to gain a couple of pounds in a few weeks, this will not undo the benefits of a well-balanced diet and active life the rest of the year. 

So practice mindful eating, chewing slowly, enjoying every bite and giving your brain time to register that you are full. Eating a range of colourful fruit and vegetables boosts your nutrients, and if you like them, nuts make a good snack between meals or accompaniment to a celebratory drink. They are an excellent source of protein especially in a mixture of varieties, but remember they are energy dense so more than a small handful bumps up the calories. 

Be sure to remember the simple steps of food safety - washing hands and surfaces often, avoiding cross-contamination, cooking foods at correct temperatures, and refrigerating foods promptly.

Other things we can do to protect our health include wearing appropriate outdoor clothing to stay dry and warm, and keeping an eye on our stress levels. At this time of year stress can arise from a multitude of directions. Bear in mind that the human body is designed to withstand occasional extreme stress, so can survive quite a lot of pressure. But people vary in how much stress they can take before they snap so only you know when you are reaching breaking point. There are many effective on-the-spot techniques you can use in the middle of an intensely stressful situation. Practice deep breathing to provide extra oxygen for both physical and emotional well-being. 

To help yourself over the long-term, write down your thoughts so they begin to make sense. Decide on priorities and look for solutions. Even if it feels like a hassle, it will be worth it, there’s almost always a way of making things easier. If possible, give yourself a break if you feel overwhelmed or out of control. Or take a break to remove yourself from the situation. If necessary, invent an excuse so you can spend a few moments by yourself. You will be able to think more clearly and get in touch with your feelings, then you can decide what to do to lift the pressure. Some of the best ways to manage stress are to find support, connect socially, and get plenty of sleep. If you tend to find social interactions draining, aim to factor in down days when you can recuperate, eat less and make healthier choices. 

Physical activity is also a great stress-reliever, so suggest going for a long walk, or find some privacy and follow an at-home workout or guided yoga or pilates session. Find somewhere private to call a friend and get it off your chest, or pick up a good book which lifts your spirits.

When visiting relatives, try to keep your expectations realistic. If you predict unpleasantness, don’t plan to stay for too long. Take a deep breath and remember it will be over soon. If you anticipate criticism and stress-inducing questions, have your (reasonable) responses already prepared.

Hang on to a sense of perspective, perhaps keep a story going in your head about the best time you and your family have ever had and repeat it to yourself on a loop. When relatives are visiting you, plan in advance where they will sleep, what you will feed them, and how can you budget to meet any extra costs. Let them help with cooking and washing up, if they offer. Don’t attempt a very impressive meal - stock up the fridge and freezer with food that’s quick to prepare. If tensions are likely to arise, don’t provide too much alcohol. When you go out, don’t feel you have to cover all the expenses. Play games together to create a fun atmosphere, but don’t feel you have to fill up every minute with activities.

This is meant to be a time of good cheer, relaxation and celebration, but for many, it’s a source of great stress. Life is just too complex and messy to ever guarantee a perfect holiday season, yet we still hope for it. For many people, especially this year, the holiday season will be a time of sadness, self-reflection, loneliness, and anxiety. The ‘holiday blues’ can be caused by a number of factors including stress, exhaustion, financial pressure, and isolation. This can lead to headaches and other physical pains, excessive intake of alcohol or food, or problems with sleep. It’s a good idea to try not to take on more responsibilities than you can handle, so delegate where possible. Make a list and prioritize the important activities to make holiday tasks more manageable.

Even for prominent figures, the lockdowns and restrictions have severely limited their activities, Local UK politician, Thangam Debbonaire MP, says, “This year has been a complex mixture. For far too many days I never left the house. Almost all of us must have had our lives altered dramatically this year, in ways we could not have imagined a year ago. We’ve found within ourselves a resilience maybe we didn’t know we had. We’ve struggled. And we’ve also realised who and what really matters to us – often to our surprise.”

She adds, “I want to reflect on the sudden, hopeful news about a vaccine coming to the end of the trial phase with 90% efficacy. That’s astonishing and wonderful news. If most people take up the vaccine when asked – and if the process continues smoothly – we may well be out of this crisis by Spring. This year has brought so many people a great deal of pain, so it’s hard not to be emotional at the thought that it might be over in the foreseeable future. I’m starting to feel the beginnings of  hope once more.”

One aspect of the environment that can cause a struggle is the reduced daylight. Some people are affected more strongly when there is less sunlight, with symptoms severe enough to disrupt their lives and cause considerable distress. These people may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Research has found that phototherapy may be an effective treatment, that is, exposure to artificial sunlight for about a half hour a day, either alone or in combination with medicine or talking therapy.

If you have significant difficulty concentrating, irritability or anger, exhaustion or lack of pleasure in activities you normally enjoy, or changes in your sleep pattern, and these changes are persistent, you could talk to your doctor or a mental health professional to determine if what you are experiencing is a more significant mood disorder. However, you may be experiencing the holiday blues, in which the symptoms are milder and go away once the holidays are over.

The imminent arrival of Covid-19 vaccines means that 2021 is almost certainly going to be an improvement!

Kate Sartorius, a professional cake designer and homemaker, can see the light at the end of the tunnel. She says, “ For me, news of the vaccine felt like a kind of release of emotion, like you’ve spent the year holding your breath out of fear and finally there’s a reason to feel more positive and less afraid. I actually cried a little when I watched the first woman have the vaccine. I did know how on edge and anxious I was but I hadn’t truly felt it until that moment. I just want to see my loved ones without feeling on edge, or without looking around at people and wondering where they’ve been before you saw them.”

We hope that some of this advice will help you to really enjoy the holiday season without too much trouble. 


About the Author

Jane Collingwood is a medical journalist with 17 years experience reporting on all areas of medical research for online and print publications. Jane has also worked on a range of medical studies funded by the UK National Health Service within the University of Bristol in the South West of England. Jane has an academic background in psychology and has authored books on stress management and respiratory infections. Currently she is combining journalism with a national coordinating role on the UK's largest surgical research trial.

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