Photo courtesy of Venture Outdoors.

We’re used to harsh winters in Pittsburgh. But it’s safe to say, none have been as harsh as this pandemic winter.

It’s not surprising to see that in a new Gallup poll, the mental health of Americans has fallen to a new low. Every day we are forced to make choices about maintaining our safety from a highly contagious virus, and our isolation from friends and family. It’s exhausting.

NEXTpittsburgh turned to Dr. Jon Weingarden, senior program director at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, and other experts, for advice to help us make it through the rest of winter.

Here are some of the best tips for maintaining your health and your sanity:

1. Know that you have control over your situation. “There are very reasonable ways to protect yourself,” says Weingarden. He shares an example from the Mayo Clinic — 93% of the staff who got the virus did not get it at the hospital. People in hospitals are wearing masks and taking basic precautions to avoid getting Covid, Weingarden says. You can, too.

2. Schedule your time. You need to think ahead, suggests Weingarden. That could mean scheduling some nice meals with your spouse or loved ones if you have a “quaranteam,” or registering for the many online events in town, or scheduling Zoom calls with a group of friends or family. It will break the monotony and give you something to look forward to.

3. Stay connected to your circle of friends and family. “Structure, routine and social engagement are a foundation of mental health,” says Weingarden. That applies to introverts, who tend to manage isolation differently. Getting into the same routine day after day isn’t good. (Hello, Blursday!)

Dr. Jon Weingarden. Photo courtesy of UPMC.

4. Get outdoors and get as much sunlight as possible. Sunlight is a mood booster. If you add Seasonal Affective Disorder — which is more than just the winter blues — to the list of challenges facing us this winter, you’ve got a recipe for a serious struggle. A good way to combat this is to get outdoors and get as much sunlight as possible. Combine that with exercise, and you’ve got a powerful set of tools to start feeling better.

5. Plan to exercise. Bonus points if it’s with a friend. One way to do it? Schedule walks, alone or with others. Pittsburgh has plenty of great parks with walking trails and numerous walkable neighborhoods. Don your mask and give others wide berth as they pass.

“Most of the time Pittsburgh is 20 degrees or more,” says Ron DeAngelo, director of sports performance training at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “There’s no reason you can’t get out there and walk.” He cites other activities such as snowshoeing, ice skating and cross-country skiing.

6. Embrace the cold. Cold therapy is getting its due this winter, with good reason. Exercising in the cold burns more calories, revs your circulation and boosts your mood. As they say in Madison, Wis., there is no such thing as bad weather, just a bad way to dress for it. Get out those Bernie Sanders mittens and get outside.

“I think we forget sometimes that we are animals and part of nature,” says Ebony Montgomery, development & communications director for Venture Outdoors.

If you’re looking for a place to start, Venture Outdoors has a lot of ways to do it, from trail running classes and geocaching activities, to nature photography workshops and hot cocoa hikes. They even offer an outdoor survival camp where you can learn how to build a fire and a shelter.

7. Find a support system or create one of your own. It’s important to notice when others in your social circle are struggling. Think about the people who you used to see regularly, and reach out.

8. Do things that make you happy. It sounds simple but it’s easy to neglect. Reading, doing puzzles, playing an instrument, blasting the music and dancing like no one is watching. No matter what lifts your spirits, make sure you carve out time for self-care this winter. It’s more important than ever.

9. Do things to help others. There’s so much suffering, so much need right now, that you can always find ways to help. “Helping other people can improve your self-esteem and make you feel better about yourself since you are taking time and energy to have a positive impact on someone else,” says Luna Greenstein, marketing and communications manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

For example, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank needs volunteers more than ever right now. Pittsburgh Cares compiles a list of volunteer opportunities with local nonprofits, from becoming a literacy tutor to becoming a “snow angel” by shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor. The organization has a calendar with literally something you can do every day.

10. And finally, avoid too much news when the news is bad. “Find the small things that focus on the future and aren’t focused on negative things like political stressors or pandemic stressors or work-related stressors,” says Weingarden. “Find a way to assess, ‘How am I, and what can I do to be well?’”

A good catch-all place to find local mental health resources is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Keystone Pennsylvania website. Anyone having a mental health crisis can call resolve Crisis Services at 1-888-796-8226.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.