Now more than ever, take care of your mental health

Do your best to limit the stress during this holiday season.
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Do your best to limit the stress during this holiday season.

Categories: Celebrate

The Christmas season is supposed to be joyful, a time for traditions and holiday songs, gifts, food, charity, and gatherings with family and friends.

Santa Claus is coming to town. How can that be bad?

But for many, the reality is that the months around Thanksgiving and Christmas can be an emotionally and mentally challenging time.

The holidays bring with them unusual stresses: pressure to get things done, financial worries and high expectations for the season that are often difficult to meet.

It’s also a time when many people reflect on what might be missing in their lives, including family members who’ve passed away, distance from their children and thoughts of bygone better days.

On top of all that, we’re on the cusp of the winter months, when many people suffer from the effects of less daylight and colder weather, including seasonal affective disorder — a type of depression triggered by the changes.

Now compound the traditional seasonal stresses by adding the coronavirus pandemic to the mix.

The concerns are about our own health and that of our family members. Concerns about the future. The feeling of isolation due to not being able to spend as much time, if any, with friends and family. The loss of holiday traditions — due to COVID restrictions — such as holiday parties, festivals, plays, and dinner and drinks with friends.

If past years were difficult, 2020 might be even more challenging.

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Dr. Kimberly Kilby, regional medical director of MVP Health Care, said all those factors can contribute to people suffering bouts of depression and despair.

“We haven’t reached the point where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said of the COVID crisis.

And with COVID, she said, “People are feeling more isolated than ever before.”

The prospects for a vaccine should raise hopes, but it’s not a quick fix and people still need to deal with the here and now. That’s a difficult message for people to deal with, she said.

“We’re really asking people to act differently.”

So how do we get through these bouts of depression, sadness, hopelessness and despair?

Dr. Kilby says the key is to be aware of the symptoms that something might be wrong. They include difficulty sleeping, poor concentration at home and work, eating too much, obsessing over fears and worries, and substance abuse such as drinking too much. Alcohol can actually increase anxiety and make your situation worse.

When those challenges arise, “It’s really time to get back to the basics” and be more present to yourself.

“Stuff you did with your kids when they were young, do for yourself,” she said.

Get more sleep. Take breaks from the computer. Detach yourself temporarily from the “pings” that might be increasing your stress, such as watching too much depressing news.

Do things, she says, that give you joy.

Even something as simple as taking a moment to meditate and reinvigorate yourself.

“Take five slow, deep breaths. Calm down.”

Trying times

That might also work as a technique when dealing with family disagreements during the holidays.

That’s another potential area for stress this season. Difficult discussions about issues such as politics and religion, particularly in this volatile political climate, can add to holiday woes.

In an article about holiday stresses, attorney and mediator Alexandria Skinner offered specific tips for keeping things calm around the dinner table.

They include listening to what others are saying and keeping an open mind. When conversations become heated, do not engage or retaliate, but instead remove yourself from the situation or use diversion and separation to bring down the temperature of the room.

She also encourages family members to focus on interests, not positions, to come up with options for mutual agreement or gain, and direct the conversation to something less controversial.

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Mental Health America, a Virginia-based nonprofit that addresses mental health, offered similar advice for dealing with the stresses of isolation, loss of loved ones, conflict among family members and the changes we’ve had to make due to COVID.

When you feel the stress getting overwhelming, identify how you’re feeling and get to the specific issues that are causing your stress. Talk to a friend, write in a journal or take some time alone.

The organization also encourages people to acknowledge who they’ve lost, remember and honor the person, and allow themselves to grieve.

And just because things have changed, that’s no reason to cancel everything. Instead, the organization says, make the most of what’s available by continuing to practice traditions such as cooking or decorating. And maybe add a twist to the family gatherings with Zoom meetings and game nights.

Finally, the group says, practice gratitude by focusing on what you still have to be thankful for.

Reach out

For many of us, these techniques will help find the equilibrium and perspective we need to cope with the holiday stresses.

But it won’t work for everyone.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 24 percent of people with a diagnosed mental illness find that the holidays make their condition “a lot” worse and 40 percent “somewhat” worse.

The key to helping others is not minimizing their issues and making sure to stay in contact with them, particularly during this period of enhanced isolation.

“The key is to help a loved one. Say something and help someone,” she said.

And help them get the help they need.

If there’s anything positive to be gained from the COVID crisis, it’s the greater availability of access to behavioral health professionals remotely.

Of all the professions, Dr. Kilby said, behavioral health has taken advantage of it the most, with 65 percent to 75 percent of services being performed by telehealth, either through video conferences or phone calls.

People who were reluctant to make appointments or who canceled them in the past might be more comfortable and less inconvenienced by speaking with a psychologist or psychiatrist from home, she said.

In addition, there are numerous resources available to people in need of help.

Among them are the NY Project Hope’s emotional support helpline, a free, anonymous, confidential helpline available to New Yorkers who need someone to talk with to get through the crisis. The phone number to speak with a crisis counselor is 1-844-863-9314.

If you’re considering suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours, offering free, confidential support for people in distress as well as people in need of suicide and prevention crisis resources. The number is 800-273-8255.

Finally, Dr. Kilby said, the most important thing to recognize is that there’s no shame in asking for help.

“It really means you’re just like everyone else,” she said. “We all need help. There’s no shame.”

Just talking to someone can be quite effective in getting through a crisis, or even just coping with day-to-day stresses or the pressures associated with the holidays.

The holidays aren’t always all joy to the world. But they don’t have to be a world of darkness and despair.

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