The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
It’s no secret that the holidays can be difficult. Even under the best of circumstances, hosting for the holidays, or traveling – or deciding not to travel – every decision is layered with expectation and has the potential to disappoint one or more people. In fact, a quick Google search on ‘stress and the holidays’ results in a staggering list of over four-million articles and links on the subject, with titles like “Holiday Survival Guide” and “Spot the Signs of Holiday Depression.” Not the ideal way to characterize a season that is supposed to be about celebration and joy.
Now, imagine having to face the unavoidable stress, expectation, and disappointment of the holiday season, while already managing a long term mental health problem such as depression or anxiety. Suddenly, every emotion is amplified, every thought becomes bigger in importance. Sleep, eating, and socializing patterns are affected leaving those most vulnerable during the holidays feeling isolated and alone. Making matters worse, this year’s COVID pandemic has only added another layer of worry.
There is an op-ed in the New York Times written by Meghan Markle that covers not just the issue of loss, but the isolation and fear that many of us are feeling – especially this year. Ms. Markle makes a fairly obvious, yet profound, suggestion to help others who may be hurting: ask how they are. (1)
To take that concept one step further, it helps to have a genuine interest in the question, and the answer. In other words, texting “How are you doing?” is nice, but try calling instead, and be sure you have time available to hear the answer. Maybe meet this person for a cup of coffee or tea, or take a walk. Sometimes, what people need is to talk, and be heard. If a person feels understood and validated, it can affect their emotional state, and behavior, in a different way from those who feel as though they are not understood. (2)
It is also important to remember that these conversations are for support. Listening does not mean solving the problem(s), so don’t feel obliged to fix the situation. You can certainly express your own feelings or thoughts in a non-judgmental way. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org) provides a variety of suggestions and resources. One important consideration is to involve other trusted family members or friends so that you are not alone in your efforts.
If possible, try engaging your friend/family member in an activity that you both can enjoy. A simple hour walk or a yoga class can go a long way toward helping someone feel better. There is plenty of evidence available now to show that exercise and movement can have a positive effect on mental health and an overall sense of well-being. (3)
If exercise is out of the question, schedule a regular time to get together for something else: cooking, painting, watching a movie, listening to music. Research shows that there is a connection between participating in hobbies and mental health. (4)
Make a Plan
You can make a plan with your loved one – and other friends and family – on what to do if/when they are having a tough time. Schedule days/times to call or get together with your loved one. Print out the plan for everyone and be sure that there are emergency phone numbers listed. Here are a few to consider:
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-8255
- NAMI – National Alliance on Mental Health 24 hour helpline: 800.950.6264
- Alcoholics Anonymous Hotline – 800-839-1686
- National Domestic Violence Hotline – 800-799-7233
Take Care of Yourself
Loving someone with mental health issues can be difficult and emotionally exhausting, especially over the holidays. Be sure that you are taking care of your own physical and mental health. Eat healthy, get rest, exercise regularly, and spend time with those you love.
(2) Validating pain communication: current state of the science. Edmond, S.N., Keefe, F. J. Pain. 2015 Feb; 156(2): 215-219. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4477266/
(3) Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care? Callaghan, P. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. 2004, 11, 476-483. https://kiactiv.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/IHD-article.pdf
(4) Association of enjoyable leisure activities with psychological and physical well-being. Pressman, S. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2009 Sep; 71(7): 725-732. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2863117/