Expert tips on how to stay mentally healthy this winter

Five Ottawa experts weigh in on how to stay mentally fit as the first COVID-19 winter approaches.

The cold weather will put our mental fitness to the test, so here are 5 ways to prepare for the challenge

A man is shown with this head in his hands.
Psychologist Allison Ouimet encourages people to consider what's possible, but also what's probable, when it comes to fears about the reopening. (Sewcream/

Waking up to several centimetres of snow this morning may have come as a shock, but now there's no doubt winter's on its way. 

With the days becoming colder and shorter, experts have been getting out the message that we all need to prioritize our mental health as the pandemic drags on.

We asked five experts for their tips on the best ways to do that.

Do the 'dance of compassion'

Clinical psychologist Mélanie Joanisse is the author of a 56-page workbook on mental wellness for health-care professionals. 

It's now been disseminated across Canada, parts of the U.S., the U.K. and Sweden. Much of the advice in the workbook is relevant to the general public, too. 

Looking to up your self-care routine? Start with putting the phone away, experts say

2 years ago
Duration 0:53
Victoria Lynes, child yoga instructor and mindfulness educator, says starting the day on your cell phone likely isn’t a healthy habit.

Her main point? It's OK to be vulnerable right now. 

"[The workbook] says the only mask you should be wearing is a medical mask. Please discard the mask of not being vulnerable," said Joanisse.

The Montfort Hospital researcher said it's important for people who are used to performing at a high level — both at work and in their personal lives — to accept that might not be possible right now. 

"What we know is that right now, the context is so full of uncertainty. It changes every two or three weeks, or even sometimes within a day. So it's really learning to have this dance of compassion and be flexible."

Grieve your losses

We need to give ourselves time to grieve our losses, whether it's the loss of a loved one, a job or a way of life, says Dr. Michael Cheng. 

Ways to bolster your mental health this winter

2 years ago
Duration 1:22
Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, says getting outside and eating well are just a few of the ways to stay healthy this winter.

"Part of coping with the pandemic is being able to have that Kleenex and acknowledge our losses and cry out those tears," said Cheng. The CHEO child psychiatrist says this applies especially to children, who need to be able to express their sadness at how life is right now. 

"Oftentimes as parents, we don't want our kids to suffer. So we jump to the next part, which is we say, 'Well, on the other hand, it could be worse,' or, 'Let's try and think some happy thoughts,'" said Cheng. 

He suggests parents first acknowledge their child's disappointment before trying to redirect them to look on the bright side of life. 

Get better sleep

Ottawa's medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches has been reminding Ottawans about the importance of their mental health. She's also trying to practise what she preaches by starting a journal. 

My kids are having a tough time during the pandemic — what should I do?

2 years ago
Duration 1:03
Dr. Michael Cheng, a child psychiatrist at CHEO, says parents should acknowledge children’s negative feelings before turning to problem-solving methods.

"I didn't used to keep a journal, but now I find if there's something on my mind it's bothering me and, you know, is it going to interfere with my sleep because it's not settled?" said Etches.

"I find if I write it down ... that's a way of processing it and putting it aside so then I can get to bed and get the rest that I need, and kind of carry on with with less worry."

Etches says it's vital to get enough sleep and exercise, and also to make an effort to eat properly. 

Take up a hobby

When the lockdown started, Victoria Lynes took to the streets, literally, to try to raise her community's spirit. 

Every day she wrote an inspirational message on the sidewalk in chalk in front of her house in the hopes of spreading positivity through her neighbourhood. She was featured in CBC Ottawa's daily positive news blog, One Good Turn

Every day during the spring lockdown, Victoria Lynes wrote a quote in chalk on the sidewalk outside her house in Beacon Hill. (Submitted)

Lynes encourages people to take time for themselves: go for a walk, take a five-minute break to stretch or breath deeply, read an inspirational book or take up a hobby such as knitting or baking.

"Schedule it in, just like you'd schedule going to the dentist," said Lynes. 

"It's not about the end product. It's about the process," she said. "Finding that creativity within ourselves really brings us into the moment, which is what mindfulness is all about."

Embrace winter activities

Looking at winter through the eyes of a child can make it easier to accept some of the harsher realities of the season.

Mohamed Sofa says this year, he's trying to see the potential for fun.

Mohamed Sofa is the director of youth programs at United Way East Ontario. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

As the director of youth programs at United Way East Ontario, he's been spending time trying to help community organizations put together "winter activity kits" for at-risk youth in an effort to help them stay mentally healthy. The kits will include skates and other items to make the cold weather more enjoyable.

"Let's go out and make our Canadian winter the best winter ever possible. Let's be brave and courageous around outdoor play, whether it's a walk, coming to the rink [or] organizing some games outdoors," said Sofa.

How are you coping with the pandemic right now? Have you found a way to beat the COVID-19 blues? Tell us your story.

If you think you may need help, there are several places you can go.

with files from Jennifer Chevalier

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