If you’ve ever been home by yourself on New Year’s Eve because a flight was canceled or you had the flu, or a loved one was unable to come see you at the last minute, or even if you weren’t invited to a holiday party you were counting on, then you know how tough the holidays can be. Combined with the intense anxiety of possibly losing a loved one to COVID-19, as well as social distancing mandates or guidelines, and the many expectations that we set for the holidays, I can say for sure that this holiday season has the potential for bringing disappointing moments.
I’m not trying to make you feel more anxious, but a good dose of reality, that this Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve may be perhaps one of the toughest holiday seasons, will hopefully allow you to plan ahead and prepare should you find yourself feeling overwhelmed. So with this holiday dispirit in mind, let’s approach the coming days with some suggestions that are appropriately distanced, to help us get through this truly “grinchy” season.
1. Self- compassion
This entire year requires a lot of compassion for ourselves. These are very difficult times. Don’t be so hard on yourself, be gentle with yourself. Try to catch and stop yourself when you begin to judge yourself. Did your holiday decorations not turn out the way you envisioned them? Did you forget your wallet at home again? Did you forget to pay your credit card bill on time, again? Tell yourself you are doing your best and that this is good enough.
2. Set realistic expectations for this holiday season
Do you always host a gathering at home for the holidays? Rather than spend hours trying to figure out how to recreate that during this pandemic, set realistic and more manageable goals. Perhaps it is ok to only gather with your immediate family and create modified 2020 memories. Ok, you are all experts in the Thanksgiving family zoom meetings, or “zoom tails” with friends, and although these are great options to feel connected, sometimes a regular old phone call with someone you trust and are close to one-on-one can give you just the boost you need to feel better and not so alone. Or try calling someone you haven’t reached out to recently, to give them a boost.
3. Help others
Helping others is a rewarding way of feeling less lonely and more productive, and that can fill us with joy. You can deliver meals to the elderly, or work in a community garden. Do some research and you will find something that works for you time-wise.
Exercising and staying active is key any time of year of course, but during a pandemic, it’s even more paramount. Go for a walk in the park with a friend and wear your Santa hat for kitsch. Don’t forget to make a small hot chocolate for yourself when you get back. Try to remember that alcohol, sugar and caffeine are all best in moderation.
A large part of self-care is also sleep. Do not underestimate the power of sleep. Feeling a little cranky during the day? Stop and ask yourself, did I sleep enough last night? Should I be sleeping more? Don’t forget to ask your doctor about your Vitamin D levels, and whether you should take Omega-3 fatty acid supplements which has been shown to improve mood.
5. Stay busy and distract yourself from whatever is causing you angst
This is a great way to cope with something in the short-term. There are still many creative ways to stay busy. You can sign up for online cooking classes or take a tour of farmers markets. Start a large holiday puzzle and create an at-home spa day for yourself. If the hair salon is open, maybe try a new style or color. You can also plan a movie marathon - try watching the Oscar-winning movies of the last 10 years. You can do this with friends too, as you compare notes via texts while you watch them together even though you’re apart. It may sound oversimplified, but try making a scrapbook, or printed book via Shutterfly, for example, for your friends and family of this historic and mind-boggling year. It’s a time capsule of sorts. Most importantly, try and plan something, even a little something each day. Whether it’s a walk with a neighbor, or an errand for a friend, or finally getting your dog groomed, stay active.
6. Take it one day at a time
When you find yourself thinking too far out in the future and getting anxious, bring yourself back to the present and just focus on getting through this day. Task yourself: what absolutely needs to get done today? Everything else can wait until tomorrow, or when you are feeling less overwhelmed.
Here’s an important disclaimer though, as I’m not trying to make light of this at all: clinical depression and impairing anxiety are real and serious. The wonderful news is that these symptoms are treatable and it’s important to be seen by your primary care physician or mental health professional to make sure that your symptoms do not begin to impair your ability to enjoy life. However, it is important to remember that feeling sad or nervous at times, or other negative emotions during the holidays, is also normal. But if your feelings of sadness or anxiety are stopping you from carrying out activities of daily living such as eating, sleeping, grooming yourself or taking care of your responsibilities for more days at a time, then it is important that you seek mental health assistance.
If you are already in treatment for mood symptoms, continue to prioritize care during the holidays. Do not stop care because you are too busy with the holiday season. Receiving support during times of increased stress is more important than ever. This is particularly important if you are taking medications for mood symptoms such as depression and anxiety. At times, when we are busy or feeling better, it is tempting to stop medications. However, it is important to remember that you may be feeling better because of the medications, and symptoms can rebound if medications are stopped abruptly. If you ever want to stop a medication, speak to your provider and together you can come up with a plan that is appropriate and safe for you. Remember that there are new medications available with little or even no side effects, and that can be taken short- or long- term, so do not hesitate to get in touch with your doctor.
There is no manual for getting through the holidays during a pandemic where health officials are asking us all to stay home and isolated. We may all be feeling lonely, but we are not alone. And please do not hesitate to call a medical professional for help. It’s our job and privilege to help you get through this.
Alicia Hurtado, MD is Associate Dean for Medical Student Wellness and Student Affairs and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.