The holidays can be a difficult time, and the long winter months that follow aren’t any easier. On top of all that, rising COVID-19 cases have us feeling cooped up and isolated. As we venture into the chilly, dark and lonely days that January, February and March hold, it’s important to check in with each other—but that’s easier said than done. How do you go about asking your friends and family how they are? How do you support their winter blues through this time?
Read on for 10 tips to keep in mind when checking in on the people you love this winter.
1. Call, don’t text
Although you’ll most likely reach out virtually, remember that a text just doesn’t carry the same weight as a phone or video call. When your friend or family member can hear your voice and/or see your face, the conversation feels more personal. Plus, it shows them that you have time to dedicate to talking with them.
“Texts often feel so impersonal. We get so many a day that most people don’t write their full feelings on text. They usually end up writing some shorthand version of what they’re feeling,” life coach Nina Rubin said. “When we’re speaking via voice, we usually elaborate more and it also feels like the other person on the other end has more time.”
That being said, if you can safely meet in person, it can be beneficial to talk face-to-face. If you both feel comfortable with it, try going for a masked and distanced walk outside.
2. Check in more than once
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the stress of the holidays around this time of year; however, talking to friends and family often should always be a priority.
“Schedule predictable and regular times to call or Zoom your loved ones. Try to make the remote visits long in duration, not just a five minute check-in, and certainly more than a quick ‘hello,’” said Michele Nealon, Psy.D. and president of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
So, the next time you call a loved one and say, “Wow, we should do this more often,” actually mean it! Pull out your calendar and schedule a regular time to chat. Whether it’s once a week or once a month, this gives both parties a healthy outlet for stress to look forward to.
In conversation, you might find yourself focusing less on what the other person is saying and more on how you’re going to respond. This is natural—especially with deep, personal conversations—but you can’t create a comforting environment for friends and family to voice their feelings if you don’t really listen.
“If someone you care about notices that you are investing in their well-being, they will be more likely to open up and share with you,” said Liadan Solomon, senior at the University of Michigan and executive director of Wolverine Support Network. “Focusing on listening to really hear what someone is trying to tell you is different than listening to respond—work to find that nuanced difference.”
When the time to respond does come, try simply to express your love and support for them with your words. Dr. Nealon recommends responses like, “Thank you for sharing that with me,” “I am here to listen” or “I care about you.”
4. Accept the discomfort
Being there for someone when they’re worried, stressed or sad is hard. You’re never going to feel totally at ease when a friend or family member opens up to you about how they’re feeling, and that’s okay!
“It can be uncomfortable for many of us to deal with the worries and fears and sadness of others, even when it is our closest family and friends. Acknowledge that for yourself. It will help you be a better listener,” Dr. Nealon said.
Having these conversations with the people who mean most to you matters. Embrace the weirdness and awkwardness going in and you’ll be better equipped to listen and give emotional support.
5. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable
This has been a hard year on all of us. You can still support friends and family even though you’ve had your own ups and downs, too. In fact, this can even help them open up even more.
“I find that when people ask how I am doing, and I am vulnerable enough to share that things could be better, that I may be feeling anxious or stressed, it gives the other person in the conversation the opportunity to do the same,” Solomon said. “Vulnerability is really difficult, so leading with your own encourages others to do the same. In this way, vulnerability breeds vulnerability.”
Speaking honestly and authentically about how you’re doing will create an environment where both parties can feel safe sharing.
6. Offer suggestions
Avoid interrupting your friend or family member with advice; however, if they ask or the moment feels right, you can offer suggestions.
“Finding a way to be around people reduces stress hormones, so encourage your loved ones to prioritize it. While COVID has changed how we can hang out with each other, we can safely go for a walk and feel like we are part of something. We Zoom rather than talk on the phone. We can send a letter or a nice card rather than a text,” Dr. Nealon said.
Consider what will help with their mental and physical wellbeing. Make sure they’re resting, eating and getting enough exercise and sunlight and offer to spend time with them to help ease feelings of isolation.
7. Use words of encouragement
Never underestimate the power of positive affirmations! Sometimes you can support friends and family simply by lifting them up with kind words. What do you love and admire most about your friends and family? Find the answer, then tell them.
“During a time of incredible stress for me, a friend of mine who I wouldn’t have expected reached out to me to let me know how much they admired my work ethic,” Solomon said. “They knew that I was facing huge deadlines and battling feelings of inadequacy, so getting that reassuring message created the support I needed in the moment to get through that time.”
Whatever kind of stress or sadness your friend or family member faces, letting them know that you see them and appreciate them makes it a little bit easier for them to power through.
8. Take care of yourself too
It’s difficult to check in on others when you’re not checking in on yourself. Make sure you’re staying in touch with your own mental wellbeing. Create your own self-care plan, whether that means watching your favorite show, practicing a hobby you love or just taking alone time to decompress. Know when and how to reach out to friends and family when you need support as well.
“If you know that this is a hard time for yourself, how can you reach out to another person? How can you help yourself?” Rubin said. “With a close friend or family member, say ‘I’m struggling. I’m having a hard time.’ It’s hard to do that, but checking in on yourself is something that is important.”
Remember to take your own emotions seriously and never minimize or invalidate your experience, especially during hard times.
9. Learn about mental health conditions
Your friend could just be feeling down this winter, or they could be experiencing something called Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as the “winter blues.” SAD is a form of depression that affects 5% of the U.S. population. Important information on SAD is just a quick Google search or phone call to your local mental health hotline away. Dr. Nealon recommends this fact sheet as a starting point for learning more about SAD. Even if you haven’t experienced this form of depression yourself, finding out as much as you can about what your friend or family member is going through will help you help them.
10. Know when to seek help
Look and listen for changes in behavior and know when and how to contact mental health services. Dr. Nealon recommends encouraging someone you’re concerned about to reach out to their doctor or mental health services, and offering your support in making the call.
If your loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If they’re presenting a risk of danger to themselves or others, call 911.
Using these tips can make a huge difference in your loved ones’ lives—and in your own! By reaching out, providing a listening ear and offering words of encouragement, you can make a positive impact in more ways than one.