Mental Health Can Be More Than Just A Wish This Holiday Season


Mental Health Can Be More Than Just A Wish This Holiday Season

By David Hart, Ph.D.

 

To say that many of us are experiencing some not so positive health effects related to the nearly year-long pandemic is likely a gross understatement.  As the pandemic wears on, collectively, there’s a growing sense of fatigue related to the safety measures implemented by local and state public health departments. Symptoms of depression, anxiety disorder, substance use disorder, and suicidal ideation have increased dramatically between the months of April and June 2020 compared to the same period the prior year.  The Centers for Disease Control reported survey data that suggests that out of nearly 5,500 respondents, over half reported at least one adverse mental health experience in the past 30 days.  Of important note, adverse conditions were more prevalent among unpaid caregivers for adults than among those who were not, with particularly large differences in increased substance use (32.9% versus 6.3%) and suicidal ideation (30.7% versus 3.6%) in this group.

As the holidays near, the sadness related to missing people and traditions in our lives is becoming more pronounced.  The empty seats at our dining table are more noticeable; the holiday decorations maybe less meaningful without the jolly banter of missed relatives; the holiday treats less delightful without that special loved one to share it with.  No doubt, a major segment of our shared society will experience more loneliness, more depression, and more anxiety as longer nights, shifting holiday traditions, and likely stricter safety measures take effect in the winter months to come.  What can we do to protect ourselves from adverse mental health effects that are becoming much more common among our family, friends, and neighbors? I have some ideas.

Santa Probably Uses Zoom Too

I was recently texting with a old friend of mine who shared that she and her mother were about to engage in a virtual cooking session together as they celebrated Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) – a holiday celebrated throughout Latin America that honors family members who have transitioned to the other side of the mortal coil.  The idea gave me some insight into how we might adapt the holidays this year to accommodate public health guidelines.

Our human tendency might be to focus on the burden of Zoom and other video technology – how we’re too often bound to our screens, missing non-verbal nuances, and lonely for a handshake, hug, or smooch on the check.  While all of this is true and yearning for what we miss is a natural part of the grieving process, eventually acceptance and what researchers describe as a “vital reaction to change” is what is required to protect our mental health.  After you give yourself 2-3 minutes to gripe and groan about how terrible Zoom is and how it can’t compare to real human-to-human interaction, then focus your attention on how technology is a lifeline to the safe social connections that are one of the pillars of mental health and happiness.  Ask yourself: how have those video conference links benefited your life over the last 8 months?  How might your life be different if you didn’t have virtual access to people, places, and information around you?  Now, take a moment to offer a blessing to this special resource feel the gratitude for the gift of light in what might otherwise have been a very dark room.

Be A Gift

Our psychology is negatively impacted when we’re focused on sources of pain, either in our in intrapersonal (individual) or interpersonal (relational) worlds.  We can become fixated on our anguish, too much of which can have an unfavorable bearing on our well-being.  Pain is intended to trigger us to take action to address its cause.  Sometimes, though, the cause of our pain cannot be relieved immediately, and we are prescribed a tonic of some sort to help us to feel better in the interim.

Gobs of scientific studies have demonstrated the benefits of altruism and acts of kindness on our subjective sense of well-being and feelings of happiness.  Basically, the more altruistic and kind we are, the more joy, contentment, and happiness we experience.  How can your actions be a gift to others this holiday season?  I have a few ideas: 1) offer several charitable gifts to organizations that are doing the work that you might otherwise be doing if it were safe to do so.  For the greatest effect, identify a dollar amount that you can reasonably afford and consider breaking into smaller quantities for weekly gifts between Thanksgiving and the winter holidays; 2) purchase and wrap gifts for children of parents who lost their jobs due to the pandemic; 3) write thank you notes to front line workers at your local hospitals; 4) send non-specific holiday cards to all neighbors on your block; and 4) volunteer virtually – you might be the only face-to-face interaction that some folks receive in a day.  There!  Doesn’t thinking about being kind make you feel better already?

Live in Your Hands

When you consider the last 100 years of human history, it’s only within the last 80 years that we’ve come to know some of our modern technologies and conveniences.  Prior to the advent of movies, records, radio, movies, television, cable, theme parks, cheap flights, gas efficient cars, family fun centers, 24-hour news cycles – oh my, I’m out of breath – we entertained ourselves in our families and communities.  We had hobbies, we built stuff, cultivated the land, and played games.  As the nights become longer and the weather turns cooler and wetter, begin to wonder about how you can live in your hands more.  What can you create with what your God gave you?  A simple Google search will lead you to an internet awash with ideas but maybe I can prime the pump a bit: 1) learn to cook a new recipe or experiment with a revered one that could use a modern update; 2) consider a new hobby that engages an interest past or present (e.g., learning to play an instrument or how to change the oil in you car); 3) DIY home improvements inside or out; and 4) my precious grandmother spent hours crafting spectacular Christmas ornaments that are the highlights of our tree to this day.  You’ll experience greater benefits if your activities are shared with others, either doing together or discussing the results after.  Now, what’s your plan to live in your hands?

Thanksgiving is About More Than Food

Although I’d very much like to give a history lesson on the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday, which are less than savory, I’ll focus our attention on the act of gratitude, which we all can agree is a source of mental health and happiness for those who practice it.  The science is clear that identifying what you’re grateful for, writing it down, and sharing it aloud has the great effect on our well-being.  So much has been said about gratitude in the last dozen or so years there’s not much more to be written here, except to encourage you to begin and each day with a list of what you’re grateful for.  Writing them down in a gratitude journal and sharing your insights with a trusted friend or even with a stranger can have long lasting effects on your mood.  You might also consider allowing your gratitude to flood your five senses.  For instance, if you’re grateful for hot water, as I am, allow yourself to not only feel the pleasure of taking a hot shower on a cold morning but also be aware of what your life might be like without it.  Particularly on Thanksgiving, I invite you to consider the food on your plate, the process for how the meal found its way to your table, and the technology that is allowing you to visit with your loved ones safely.  Think about what it would be like without these ingredients.  Now, feel the power of Thanksgiving.

For those of you struggling, you’re not alone.  Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, healthcare professional, or clergy member.  If you feel underwater, are unable to function to the level that you feel is acceptable, have begun or increased substances or behaviors to manage negative feelings, or have considered ending your life, please seek help immediately.  If you need resources, please feel free to email me at [email protected].  If your life is in immediate risk, please call 911.

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