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Taking Care of Your Mental Health During the Socially Distanced Holidays

When COVID-19 hit America in early 2020, millions of people were placed under shelter-at-home orders and began to practice social distancing. Social distancing recommendations include limiting the events and activities you attend, as well as the overall number of people you interact with on a regular basis. Now, with winter approaching and a global pandemic still upon us, we are all faced with needing to continue practicing safe social distancing during the holidays.

But 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. This year, some may find a socially-distanced holiday to be stressful. Whether you're looking forward to a quiet holiday at home or sad there won't be a seasonal soiree, we are sharing what to watch out for and ways to take care of your mental health during this unprecedented season.

How Mental Health May Be Affected During the Holiday Season of 2020

For those who already experience depression, during the holidays they may see an increase in severe symptoms. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with mental illness report that the winter holidays "make their condition worse." That's without the added factor of distance and alienation from loved ones.

While depression can happen at any time of the year and in any circumstance, many people may experience worsening symptoms due to this year's socially-distanced holiday season. Here are some examples of how this year's holiday season may 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. While 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 is important to talk with our doctor, as your symptoms could be related to seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression where symptoms occur in a regular, seasonal pattern. SAD 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

  • 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.

Increased Stress

Stress is how the brain and body respond to demands placed on it. Between navigating family obligations and the financial burden holidays can create, it is easy for stress to creep in. Stress can take a toll on your physical and emotional health during the holidays. Stress 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 can also have a big impact on depression and anxiety.

Increased Anxiety

Anxiety is the body's reaction to unfamiliar, stressful or dangerous situations. It is classified by a sense of uneasiness, dread or distress leading up to, or anticipating, a specific event. The holidays can be a trigger for people who have anxiety, especially for those encountering people and family members for the first time in months. For others, being alone in a time where one is normally surrounded by family members can also create a state of heightened anxiety.

Social Isolation and Withdrawal

Obviously, social distancing often is accompanied by both feelings of loneliness and social isolation, but the latter comes with some huge mental health risks. One study found that 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 of 2020. 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 is important to prioritize your mental health during the holidays. Make sure to take some time in your schedule to use these strategies to reduce stress and improve mental health.

  1. 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.

  2. Have a hobby hour. Keep a dedicated time for hobbies that bring you joy, like reading, crafting, puzzles or drawing. Regularly participating in something that you enjoy can relieve stress and improve mood. Doing so with a friend group online can also help to prevent social withdrawal.

  3. Practice relaxation. Relaxation techniques can help calm you down if you are feeling stressed. Meditation, yoga, taking a hot bath or getting a massage are all healthy ways to relax.

  4. Talk to someone. One of the best things you can do for your mental health during the holidays is to talk about how you are feeling with someone you trust. Call a friend or meet a family member who is in your regular social circle. Speaking with a friend can reduce your stress, boost your happiness and help you cope with what you are going through.

  5. Talk to a professional. Find a therapist to help you get through this 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 doctor to discuss your symptoms.


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