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Staying Mentally Healthy During the Holidays

The holiday season is often a time of year for social activities, holiday shopping, and quality time with loved ones. For the second year in a row, however, COVID-19 threatens to make those activities more difficult.

Keeping up with activities, staying positive and safely socializing can be overwhelming.

In addition, 40% of U.S. adults face a mental health or substance abuse challenge, making a complicated holiday season an even more difficult time for many people. Regardless of whether you are living with a mental health challenge or know someone who is, you can take steps to prepare for the holidays and prioritize your mental health in the coming weeks.

When stress is at its peak, it’s hard to stop and regroup. Try to prevent stress, anxiety and depression in the first place, especially if the holidays have taken an emotional toll on you in the past.

  • Recognize your feelings. If someone dear to you has recently died or you are unable to be with loved ones for other reasons, allow yourself to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. It does not make sense to force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season.
  • Reach out. If you feel lonely, seek out community, religious or other social events or communities. Several of them may have websites, online support groups, social media sites or virtual events. They may be able to offer support and companionship.
    • If you’re feeling overwhelmed during the holidays, it may be a good idea to talk to a friend or family member about your concerns. Try reaching out with a call or a video chat.
    • Volunteering your time or doing something to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships. For example, consider dropping off meals and desserts to people that have no one during the holidays
  • Be realistic. The holidays will not be just like 2019, before the pandemic. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, large families may not be able to come together but you can find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos. Or meet virtually on a video call. Even though your holiday plans may look different this year, you can find ways to celebrate
  • Set aside differences. Try to be more tolerant of family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations. Leave any grievances you may have for a more appropriate time for discussion. And cut people a brake if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, as well.
  • Do not break the bank. Before you do your gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts.

Try these alternatives:

  • Donate to a charity in someone’s name.
    • Give homemade gifts.
    • Start a family gift exchange.
  • Have a timely well thought out plan. Determine specific days for shopping, baking, connecting with friends and other activities. Consider whether you can shop online for any of your items. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list accordingly That’ll help avoid last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten items. And make sure to line up help for meal prep and cleanup.
  • Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity. If, at any point, you feel overwhelmed or anxious, know that it’s perfectly fine to take a step back. Healthy boundaries are necessary for your mental health. Practicing self-care can also help soothe feelings of anxiety or stress. Take a walk, watch a funny movie, or meditate.
  • Don’t abandon healthy habits. Don’t let the holidays become a pig out season. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt.

Try these suggestions:

  • Have a healthy snack before holiday meals so that you don’t go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks.
    • Eat healthy meals.
    • Get plenty of sleep.
    • Include regular physical activity in your daily routine.
    • Try deep-breathing exercises, meditation or yoga.
    • Avoid excessive tobacco, alcohol and drug use.
    • Be aware of how the information culture can produce undue stress, and adjust the time you spend reading news and social media as you see fit.
  • Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Find an activity you enjoy. How about you picking up meditation. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. The “holiday blues” are real, so it is important to stay in tune with how you’re feeling. It can be easy to put others before yourself during the holiday season but remember that how you’re feeling matters too.
    • Some options may include:
      • Listening to motivational audios
      • Listening to soothing music
      • Reading the scriptures and meditating on them

Pay attention to what makes you happy and incorporate it into your daily life. And remember: It’s OK to not be OK, and you’re not alone.

  •   Ask for help. If the holidays become more than you can handle, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. If despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores Talk to a loved one, trusted peer. Talk to your primary care physician or a mental health professional about how you’re feeling. If you notice a family member or loved one having a difficult time, encourage them to seek help too.
  •   Manage your expectations. Remember that this year is different and may not feel like the holiday season we are used to. Whether you are sharing a meal over Zoom or sending well wishes to family across the country, managing your expectations for yourself and others will help you stay positive.

Even though this year’s holiday season may not look like it has in the past, you can still make it special and comfortable by prioritizing your mental health and well-being. Take it one day at a time

Gracia Pierre-Pierre, MD CAQSM