Managing mental health despite another COVID-19 holiday
When COVID-19 hit America in early 2020, millions of people were placed under shelter-at-home orders and began to practice social distancing. Recommendations included limiting the events and activities you attend, as well as the overall number of people you interact with on a regular basis.
Nearly two years later, the global pandemic is still with us. Readily available, free vaccines make social distancing less of an issue for those who have become vaccinated, but the highly contagious Delta variant and lower-than-hoped-for vaccination rates mean we can't entirely put the days of social distancing during the holidays behind us.
When people think of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other winter holiday celebrations, the last thing on their mind is social distancing. Holidays are supposed to be a time of gathering together. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the safest way to celebrate this year is to get vaccinated first.
For those who don't, it's recommended you avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces, stay home if you're sick or have symptoms, and get tested if you have symptoms or have had close contact with someone who has COVID-19.
Some may find a socially distanced holiday to be stressful. Whether you're looking forward to some quiet time at home or are sad there won't be a seasonal soiree, we're sharing what to watch out for and ways to take care of your mental health during another COVID-19-filled holiday season.
How mental health may be affected
For those who already experience depression, the holidays might see an increase in severe symptoms. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with mental illness report the winter holidays "make their condition worse." That's without the added factor of distance and alienation from loved ones.
Although depression can happen at any time of the year and in any circumstance, many people could experience worsening symptoms because of a socially distanced holiday season. Here are some examples of how it could affect mental health.
The "winter blues" and seasonal affective disorder
The "winter blues" are a common occurrence and are marked by feeling gloomier and more lethargic during the darker, colder days of winter. Although many people may feel "down," the winter blues typically do not keep them from enjoying life.
If you feel like your winter blues or holiday sadness is affecting your enjoyment of normal activities, has more symptoms in common with clinical depression, extends into the spring months, or is interfering with your daily life, it's important to talk with your doctor because your symptoms could be related to seasonal affective disorder. SAD is a type of depression where symptoms occur in a regular, seasonal pattern. It affects nearly half a million people in the United States every winter, and symptoms include the following:
- Feeling depressed nearly every day,
- Feeling worthless/hopeless,
- Having low energy,
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed,
- Having problems sleeping, and
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight.
SAD is linked to a change in sunlight, and depression overall has several contributing factors, including genetics, brain chemicals, and life situation.
Stress is how the brain and body respond to demands placed on them. Between navigating family obligations and the financial burden holidays can create, it's easy for stress to creep in. Stress can take a toll on your physical and emotional health during the holidays. It can cause headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, upset stomach, and a change in sex drive. Mentally, stress can lead to feeling overwhelmed, irritable, or angry. It also can have a large impact on depression and anxiety.
Anxiety is the body's reaction to unfamiliar, stressful, or dangerous situations. It's marked by a sense of uneasiness, dread, or distress leading up to -- or anticipating -- a specific event. The holidays can be a trigger for those who have anxiety, especially when encountering people and family members for the first time in months. For others, being alone in a time when one normally is surrounded by family members can create a state of heightened anxiety.
Social isolation and withdrawal
Obviously, social distancing often is accompanied by feelings of loneliness and social isolation, but the latter comes with huge mental health risks. One study found social isolation is twice as damaging to one's physical and mental health as obesity. Psychologists have known about the link between depression and social withdrawal for decades, and it's something to be very aware of during the holiday season. This year, even if you can't visit in person, be sure to connect with your loved ones in any way you can.
Positive ways to manage your mental health and the holidays
It's important to prioritize your mental health during the holidays. Make sure to make time in your schedule to use these strategies to reduce stress and improve mental health.
- Exercise. Regular physical activity is linked to reducing anxiety and depression symptoms. Exercise also provides a boost in mood and has benefits for your physical health, including lower blood pressure and improved circulation.
- Have a hobby hour. Keep a dedicated time for hobbies that bring you joy, such as reading, crafting, puzzles, or drawing. Regularly participating in something you enjoy can relieve stress and improve your mood. Doing so with a friend group online also can help to prevent social withdrawal.
- Practice relaxation. Relaxation techniques can help calm you down if you're feeling stressed. Meditation, yoga, taking a hot bath, or getting a massage are all healthy ways to relax.
- Talk to someone. One of the best things you can do for your mental health during the holidays is to talk about how you're feeling with someone you trust. Call a friend or meet a family member who's in your regular social circle. Speaking with a friend can reduce your stress, boost your happiness, and help you cope with what you're going through.
- Talk to a professional. Find a therapist to help you get through the season if your symptoms continue to get worse. Call SAMHSA's National Helpline, which is available 24/7 during times of severe symptoms.
These strategies can help you manage your mental health during Christmas and year-round.
Treatment is available for depression, anxiety, anger issues, grief and loss issues, and other areas of mental health. Schedule an appointment with your family medicine or primary care provider to discuss your symptoms.
If you haven't been vaccinated for COVID-19 or are ready for a booster shot, Reid Health is offering FREE vaccinations. For the full list of locations, hours, eligibility guidelines, and FAQs about the vaccines, go here.