A Psychiatrist's Tips To Proactively Care For Your Mental Health This Holiday Season
While the onset of the holiday season can be an exciting time, it can also create substantial stressors and mood shifts. Given all the buildup around the holidays, it's not uncommon for people to sometimes get the "holiday blues." Feeling down, stressed, or simply burnt out is normal.
That being said, it's important to distinguish between the expected holiday (or post-holiday) blues and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), an issue many people face during the fall and winter seasons, especially in colder climates. SAD symptoms are very similar to major depressive episodes that appear around the same time every year.
As we head into the holiday season—especially during the pandemic when many of our normal coping strategies may not be feasible—it is essential to be mindful of our mental health. Here are some key points to consider that can help you and those you love to avoid holiday-induced anxiety and stress during this unusual holiday season.
If you're spending the holidays solo, find creative ways to connect.
There is comfort in the thought of seeing loved ones over the holidays and spending precious time together after a long and challenging year. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this year exceptionally difficult, as celebrating with friends and family isn't an option for most people. But consider how resilient you have been throughout this unprecedented year, and use that same energy to make this holiday special and different in a positive way.
Think about unique ways to feel connected—learning to cook your favorite holiday recipes, putting holiday decorations out a little earlier this year, scheduling virtual dinners and festive parties with loved ones, playing virtual games, sending thoughtful gifts and cards to open throughout the season when you may be feeling low.
Another way to feel in the holiday spirit is to show gratitude: Consider doing something for people you may know or even a stranger who has suffered personal or financial losses during the pandemic. A little human kindness can go a very long way and generates positive, warm feelings all around.
Don't be afraid to set boundaries with friends and loved ones.
As pandemic fatigue hits a new high, some people may decide to take the risk and plan holiday get-togethers despite warnings from health officials. These will be difficult decisions for all of us to make, as many people are feeling the need for some in-person social interactions.
But it's important to check in with yourself about your comfort level regarding COVID-19 risk. Ultimately, keeping yourself and others around you physically safe and healthy should take priority, so saying no does not mean you are being unkind or an inconsiderate friend or family member. It's quite the opposite, actually. Continue to remind yourself of this leading up to the holidays, to avoid feeling stuck in a cycle of self-blame and guilt.
Acknowledge feelings of grief during the holiday season.
It is always difficult to go through holidays when you have lost a loved one, and this year the pain is ever more present on a global scale. In previous years, one could share the grief with family members when gathering over the holidays, but this year it is unlikely that will be possible.
Take the time to acknowledge your feelings of grief, think about how you would like to safely honor the memory of your loved one on the holiday, and understand you are not alone. A quieter holiday is a good time to reflect and also make a plan for how you will honor your loved one when things return to "normal."
Embrace and appreciate a low-key holiday.
In past years, many people have likely felt the stress of planning an elaborate holiday dinner or the perfect holiday party for a crowd, or the exhaustion that comes with researching and booking a vacation for the whole family. This desire for perfection makes people feel increasingly anxious as they are planning, and then eventually disappointed if (and when) something doesn't play out accordingly.
Life rarely follows our plans, and this year, more than ever, serves as a reminder. This holiday season is the time to try to let go of all holiday expectations and the intense pressure we put on ourselves for Instagram-worthy celebrations. You might find that letting go actually makes it easier to enjoy the holidays just a little bit more and remain in the present.
Let the light in.
With the combination of changing the clocks and the approaching darkest days of the year, less light can have lasting effects on anyone's mental health. As sunlight decreases, the serotonin levels in our brains can also decrease, leading to more depressive moods.
Evidence suggests that the primary cause of SAD appears to be a decrease in available sunlight, so it's critical to "let the light in" this holiday season. Bundle up and take a short walk earlier in the day with your immediate household while there is still daylight; perhaps make it a ritual before settling in to watch a holiday movie or catch up with long-distance loved ones on Zoom. It's also possible to bring natural light into your home with tools like light therapy.
Have your healthiest holiday yet.
Sleep is essential for maintaining overall good mental health, and a low-key holiday is a perfect time to take advantage of some extra rest and relaxation. Adults between the ages of 18 and 60 years of age should get seven or more hours of sleep a night. Getting plenty of rest and developing a sleep schedule can help mitigate winter depression. When it comes to developing good sleep hygiene, try to go to bed around the same time every evening. Take a hot shower or bath to relax your muscles or even meditate before bed to help you doze off to sleep more easily.
Exercise is also crucial: As you work out, your body releases endorphins, which help ease pain and stress while promoting happy feelings. It's just one reason regular exercise is critical to an excellent overall self-care plan. While fitness may seem like a chore, particularly around the holidays, consider festive activities to get your body moving: Build a snowman with your kids, go skiing, or even shovel snow from your driveway—whatever is physically motivating and stimulating to you. While it's harder to get outside in colder climates, a few minutes bundled up in natural light not only boosts your heart rate, it can also lift your mood and spirits.
Recognize holiday-induced stress & focus on the positive.
Like everything in life, stress makes any situation worse, so it's critical to try to mitigate it where and when you can. Holiday planning and family gatherings (even virtually) are bound to add an extra component of stress. Some significant stressors may remain this winter, particularly given the recent divisive election season, talk of COVID-19, and the differing opinions about handling the pandemic.
To help mitigate potential stress, remember to plan early and realize you don't have to make everything perfect. It could prove beneficial to avoid potentially combative conversations and hot button topics virtually or in person. What's more, try to appreciate the positive aspects of a "different" type of holiday this year while celebrating the good in those around us, near and far.
And while COVID-19 will continue, realize you can decrease your risk of infection by being informed, practicing social distancing and good hygiene, and wearing a mask. At the end of the day, it's about recognizing what you can and cannot control. Identify what creates stress in your life, and put plans in place to help alleviate that stress. Most of all, though, remember you are human. Implementing and practicing the tips above can go a long way toward setting you on a path to a happier and healthier holiday season.