How to Take Care of Your Mental Health When You're Missing Everything *Normal* This Holiday Season

How to Take Care of Your Mental Health When You're Missing Everything *Normal* This Holiday Season

11/18/2020

The holiday season can be stressful at literally the best of times. And this year, several months into the coronavirus pandemic, is one hundred percent not the best of times. In fact, you’ve probably already made the super hard choice to cancel all travel and spend the holidays away from family, loved ones, and longstanding traditions. It’s a huge, huge bummer.

But that, coupled with the fact that we’re still in a pandemic where your mental health may have already been declining (52 percent of millennial women who suffer from the mental health condition say it’s gotten worse due to COVID-19, per a recent Cosmo poll), may make this time extra painful.

“The holidays will look different this year—I’m already grieving,” says Lea Lester, LPC, a therapist in Dallas, Texas. “But I think it’s necessary to grieve. It’s always important to feel and process all of our emotions.”

Ahead, hear from experts about how to protect your mental health while living through a global pandemic (yep, still) during the holiday season.

Reframe your thinking.

“We often think of holidays as a chance to celebrate what we value most, such as family or belonging,” explains Amalia Miralrío, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Detroit, Michigan. “Take some time to think about what your core values are and how staying at home or modifying holiday plans can honor your values more than the usual traditions this year. For example, staying home because you’re motivated to protect your loved ones feels different from telling yourself you’re staying home due to a crisis that’s out of your control.”

Connect with your family—virtually.

Nina Vasan, M.D., a psychiatrist and the Chief Medical Officer at Real, recommends making new traditions that don’t require physical togetherness. “This could be a family craft night, a Zoom call where each household prepares a different holiday song or skit, voting on a cause to donate to, or preparing food to deliver to domestic violence shelters,” she says.

“Make your family’s special recipes together over Zoom or FaceTime and eat them together,” suggests Kathryn Ely, a licensed counselor and anxiety therapist at Empower Counseling in Birmingham, Alabama.

The goal here is to find new, creative ways to feel like you’re still with each other, even if the pandemic is keeping you apart.

Plan tiny distractions.

“Make lists of all of the projects, hobbies, or tasks you can do to stay busy—and be sure to follow up on each of these,” suggests Ashwini Nadkarni, M.D., an associate psychiatrist and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. Now’s the time to color-code your winter accessories, pretend you’re on the Great British Baking Show, or knit your own chunky sweater.

Go the eff outside.

“Finding ways to spend time outdoors and experience the delights of the winter weather can also help,” Dr. Nadkarni says. “Bundle up and take a walk, or consider learning a new winter sport which still enables you to maintain social distance.” But please, don’t forget your mask. Personally, I plan to get very good at snowshoeing.

Even if you can’t get outdoors, keep it moving.

This is truly the best time of year for skipping workouts and eating your fave foods. But don’t forget to move around, says Stephanie Korpal, a therapist in St. Louis, Missouri. “We need all the help we can get right now to help get us emotionally through this unprecedented time,” she adds. So if you can sneak in some veggies to your daily diet and carve out time for at least a little movement (squatting while Netflix-ing counts!), the investment now will help you over the next few months.

Remember hygge? Get back into that.

“This Danish practice of practicing extreme coziness reminds us to welcome and appreciate the bits of joy during this holiday season,” says Tricia Wolanin, Psy.D., a community and clinical psychologist. “Allow yourself to purchase that soft plush blanket or onesie, curl up by the fire (or a virtual one) with a good book, spend time with your aging pets who have been longing for love, drink that hot chocolate or coffee, treat yourself to dim lighting, or the sounds of a record player.”

When you feel overwhelmed, focus on your breathing.

“Deep breathing facilitates the calming of the nervous system, particularly the parasympathetic system,” says Rae Mazzei, Psy.D., a health psychologist in Phoenix, Arizona. “Try inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling for 5 seconds. This 10 second breath cycle induces a relaxation response within your body.”

Ditch the pressure. It’s 2020, after all.

“Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel a bit stressed and burnt out,” says Nicole Byers, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with Rocky Mountain Neurosciences. “And stop putting so much pressure on yourself to have the perfect holiday season!” Like, who cares if your Christmas tree isn’t Pinterest-worthy? No one’s gonna see it anyway!

Know it’s ok to not be ok.

“It is absolutely okay to feel lonely,” says Nikole Benders-Hadi, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and the Medical Director of Behavioral Health at Doctor On Demand in White Plains, New York. “It is absolutely okay to feel disappointed and angry as well.”

And finally—don’t be afraid to ask for help.

“If you are really struggling, talk to someone about it,” says Anjani Amladi, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist in Sacramento, California. “There is nothing wrong with seeking professional help. Sometimes an objective party can help you to process difficult times, especially loss and the painful emotions that come with it. They can also provide extra support and new ways of coping that you may feel uncomfortable asking friends and family for.”

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