If you feel a spike in your anxiety or depression during the holidays, you’re not the only one. Though the holidays are typically thought of as a time of celebration and cheer, as many as 64 percent of people who already deal with mental illness report an increase in symptoms during this time of year, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. And who can blame those who feel a bit on edge when the additional holiday pressure to cook, shop, and socialize, as well as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), are added to everyday stressors. This year, as we gear up for the holiday season, there’s also a new issue that we have to face: celebrating during a pandemic.
In the U.S., we just hit the six-month mark of dealing with COVID-19, and it’s already had plenty of adverse effects on the general public’s mental health. So, as the weather gets chillier and the holiday lights start popping up, how can we prepare for the many feelings and situations that may arise, as well?
“The holidays can be very stressful due to the various emotions that many may experience,” says Markesha Miller, a licensed psychotherapist based in South Carolina. “This year may be exacerbating because of the quarantine in place, the continuous fear of contracting the virus, and the stressful impact of the pandemic.”
But that doesn’t mean to give up all hope: the holidays are a great time to show love not only to your friends and family, but to yourself, as well.
What to do if stay-at-home orders are still in place
This year’s holiday season is going to look different for everyone; the biggest commonality is that most of us are likely going to have our holiday routines disrupted. This can mean a lot of things, but one of the biggest issues is that you may not be able to be around your friends or family members during the festive season. But there are many ways to be able to cope with the situation.
“If you miss seeing your family and are not going to be able to celebrate the holidays together this year because of the current situation, now can be a great time to get creative and cope ahead,” says Angela Ficken, a licensed therapist based in Boston. “If you know you are going to be going through a difficult time, think about what will help you cope through it now and start practicing those skills, rather than wait for that stressful event to ask yourself what you need. By then, it will be harder to think clearly and skillfully get through it.”
Ficken notes that a few ways to practice coping ahead include talking with your loved ones now about the holidays, including how they are thinking about approaching them and some fun virtual parties or evenings you can all do together. “Maybe everyone makes the same meal, side dish, or dessert so you all have one same thing together,” she says. “Or you could all wear an ugly sweater or find a fun theme to participate in together.”
Celebrating a solo holiday at home
Though celebrating the holidays on your own can feel stressful at first, this could be a great moment to show yourself some long-overdue love. “Use this time to celebrate internally rather than externally,” says Miller. “Oftentimes, we find ourselves sad and depressed during this time because of the traditional expectation of being around family and friends. If you are going to be alone due to quarantine this holiday season, take this time to reconnect with yourself and nurture your own spirit.”
Miller notes that you can focus on a “season of self-care:” Take this time to plan ahead for the new year, do an act of goodwill for your loved ones or community, or treat yourself to some festive home decor and your favorite holiday recipes. “The key is changing your perspective,” she says. “Our mood is often deteriorated because of the expectations that we allow society to place on us regarding the holiday season. Who says that you have to be surrounded by family and friends in order to have a full holiday experience?”
What to do in an unsafe environment
On the flip side, you might be stuck in a situation that isn’t healthy for you mentally, such as with a toxic family member or abusive partner. “If you are in an abusive relationship during the holidays and enduring the quarantine, this can have a very stressful impact,” adds Miller. “However, your safety should be a top priority. Abuse is often heightened during the holidays due to the stress of the season. Make sure that you have a safety plan.”
In these certain situations, all experts agree on one thing: try to stay as safe as possible, and take it one step at a time. “For those who do not have the physical escape and are living in very stressful environments such as with an abusive partner, parents, or at work, please do what you can to keep yourself safe,” says Ficken. “Keep your day as structured as you can.”
Ficken notes to try and stay as present as you can during these moments, and to try and keep yourself busy with some productive tasks. “Looking too far in the future can be overwhelming,” she says. “Asking yourself questions like 'when is this going to end?' is one that cannot be answered and only brings more stress and anxiety…. Creating structure will give you some control over your day which will help manage uncertainty as well as your stress and anxiety.”
Miller suggests a few tips for those who are in an unsafe environment during the holidays, including creating a “safe space” such as a bedroom or bathroom to escape to when tensions rise, setting boundaries, and creating a support system of friends and family members to contact. She also notes that virtual counseling and support groups, such as Mental Health America’s Inspire, are great resources.
If you are feeling unsafe during this season and are not sure what to do, Ficken suggests heading to thehotline.org. If you are worried someone might look at your internet searches you can call the hotline at 800-799-7233.
Handling in-person holiday gatherings
Some people are still throwing holiday gatherings, and you may be considering how to safely attend. If this is the case, Cassandra Pierre, an infectious disease specialist based in Boston, says the most important action to take is to get tested for COVID-19 before the gathering.
“Testing is the way to avoid unnecessary heartache, infection, and illness,” says Pierre. “I do feel like people need to be tested ideally within a few days.” Getting a test 24 to 72 hours before engaging with family members is ideal, so that you have your results back but they’re not outdated because you’ve been out and about.
Another tip Pierre suggests is to keep the family gathering outside, if possible, to allow fresh air flow and lower the risk of spreading germs. “I would certainly recommend having holiday gatherings outdoors as much as possible for better ventilation, lower risk of exposure, and infection,” she says.
If you’re going to a gathering that can’t take place outdoors, Pierre recommends following current social distancing guidelines and, most importantly, wearing a mask. “Wearing a mask and having everyone wear a mask is still a good protocol to take,” she says.
If possible, she also suggests wearing eye protection like goggles or face shields, which may decrease the spread of COVID-19. “We've seen that wearing eye protection, like safety goggles, safety glasses, and facial masks, does reduce the risk of transmission to health care workers in higher risk settings,” she explains.
However, if you think you could put yourself or an immunocompromised loved one at risk, you may want to skip the in-person holiday gatherings altogether. “If you live with people who are higher risk due to age, comorbidities, or you yourself care for people in the course of your life — you're a healthcare worker or frontline worker — you really want to think twice about going to holiday gatherings around people that you have not quarantined with,” Pierre says. “I know that we all need normalcy, but we also are in this for the long haul at this point.”
Though it may be stressful, Ash Nadkarni, associate psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, suggests being honest with family and friends about your feelings of gathering and talking to them about their social distancing habits.
“Now is a time to be honest about concerns and talk to family or loved ones about their activities and social distancing habits,” Nadkarni says. “If something concerns you, it's OK to gather virtually. If you are attending an event, wear a mask and maintain social distance. It's key to speak up about your concerns and communicate openly.”
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