On already weary hearts and minds, a new wave of COVID restrictions issued just in time for the holidays could be a tipping point. Doctors and mental health professionals suggest committing to principles and practices that can help deal with the prolonged day-to-day stress in mentally healthy ways.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly caused people to be more confused, frustrated, and anxious,” said David Daku, of Christian Counseling Services of Central Pa., in Northumberland. “The lockdowns, mask-wearing and social distancing have created an atmosphere of unsettled distress. The greater concern about any problem is how we react to it.”
Every year, Christmas gatherings are a big deal for Jeff and Maria Edmondson and their large family.
“One of our annual family celebrations is with my husband’s siblings and our children, their children, and their significant others,” Maria said. “We also spend time with my dad’s family and my mom on Christmas day.”
Together, the Coal Township couple has seven children and five grandchildren.
“Throughout the years, the "Edmondson Christmas" outgrew host houses as more children and grandchildren came and grew, and spouses and significant others filled the family,” Maria said. While that’s a blessing in most cases, this year it’s the reason why they can’t celebrate together due to the pandemic.
“It was hard, as some of us haven’t seen each other since the summer, and we specifically haven’t seen our son, daughter-in-law and two grandkids since August,” she said. “We are all disappointed and saddened that it has gotten to this point. But we also realized that staying home and staying safe was more important at this time.”
But rather than just be upset, the family decided to turn the disappointment into an opportunity to help others.
“We usually do a gift exchange, and everyone puts their name in and picks a name out,” Maria said. “This year we asked everyone instead of doing the gift exchange if we could give to a family or families in need. Pay it forward.”
The idea underlines what the Edmondsons believe really matters, not just at the holidays, but in life.
“It confirms the teaching that we have tried to teach our kids — that it is better to give than receive,” Maria said. “Most of us have done fairly well, despite this unusual and strange season we are in. There are some that have not. If we can extend the hand of hope, generosity and love, be the hands and feet of Jesus, why wouldn’t we?"
To those families who are disheartened at having to cancel beloved holiday traditions this year, Maria offers a word of advice:
“We pray it won’t last forever,” she said. “If you have the ability to reach out beyond your own family walls, what a beautiful thing it is to be blessed by blessing others.”
Among the many ways of coping this season, a good first step is to face reality.
“People can be lulled into this false sense of normalcy with tradition and hopefulness of the holiday,” said Dr. Megan Barclay, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology. “It creates this idea that they’re safe and they’re protected, and everything is ok and they can let their guard down. We’ve been spending a lot of time helping people understand that if you choose to get together with friends and family, keep up with handwashing, wearing a mask, and social distancing as much as possible."
This can be more difficult for some.
“It causes some sort of psychological inflexibility when you can’t do what you’ve always done,” she explained. A way to deal with that is to identify what it was about a particular tradition that you really enjoyed, and then recreate that in a safe way. For example, if you enjoy the togetherness, connect with family and friends via a Zoom call. And think of the good that can come out of the changes this year.
“It’s easy for people to forget how stressful the holidays may be,” Barclay said. “This year, you might not be traveling, or have to clean your house — that can be nice too.”
Disappointment is normal
When that reality is recognized, the next step is to acknowledge that things may be different this year. And it’s ok to be mad or sad about it.
“The No. 1 thing that we’ll always tell people is that whatever you’re experiencing, your feelings are valid,” Barclay said. “The most helpful thing you can do for yourself is to recognize what you’re feeling.”
If you have young children looking up to you, admit to them if you feel stress, but model ways of dealing with that stress in healthy ways. For example, Barclay said you could exercise, do art, cook, or write about it. But don’t try to ignore it or push it down.
“By not acknowledging an emotion that’s happening, there’s the risk of feeling okay for a while, and then eventually having a very extreme emotional reaction to something that wasn’t possibly that upsetting. It’s like waiting for the kettle to erupt on the stove.”
According to Stephanie Rushton, behavior health therapist with UPMC in the Susquehanna Region, for many people, dealing with COVID and its far-reaching effects has led to symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder – something “very normal and common to have following some kind of traumatic event.”
Ongoing feelings like that, she said, aren’t just a burden to one’s mental health, but can lead to decreased immune system functioning – not ideal amid a virus pandemic and in a season when viruses are most prone to strike even in normal years.
“We have to navigate that fine line between keeping ourselves healthy, and keeping other people healthy,” Rushton said, “and also addressing our mental health as well.”
It’s a fine line that becomes even more difficult to traverse during holiday stress.
Control what you can
Knowing what you can, and can’t control, can help in the navigation.
“We can control how we treat others, how we spend our time, the things we say and the way that we say them,” Rushton said. “We can focus on the things that are meaningful to us.”
As a Christian counselor, Daku said, “there are many things in life we can’t control or change, but we can choose to put our faith in God.” He encourages calling out to God in prayer, admitting that you are afraid, knowing that He cares about you and what you feel, and asking His help to accept His peace and the ability to trust Him.
“Another good proactive choice is to focus on your personal well-being and the well-being of others,” Daku said. “Your self-talk is key to your emotional health. Replace your negative thoughts with healthy thoughts such as believing you and others have worth and value. Agree to treat yourself and others with kindness and respect. Agree to be more merciful and gracious toward yourself and others.”
In addition, he said, “Getting proper rest along with healthy eating and exercise will make a positive contribution to your overall mindset and immune system.”
Rushton agrees. “It’s very normal for us to have stress responses to something that is a real, genuine threat,” she said. “What becomes really important is that we remain self-aware, and be able to identify what it is that we are actually experiencing, being able to engage in good coping skills.”
“Self-care activities become even more important,” she said, “when we have that intense, external stressor.”
Barclay encourages daily gratitude journaling
“In a time when so much feels that it’s going so wrong, it can be very hard to remember the things that are going well or the things that bring you joy,” she said.
This time of year more than any other, loneliness is keenly felt by many who don’t have close relationships. Add lockdowns and quarantines, and those feelings increase.
“Human beings are wired to have connections, to have socialization,” Rushton said. “So when we are isolated…if we are quarantined for long periods of time, we can have higher rates of PTSD, irritability, depression, even substance abuse.”
That’s why it’s more important than ever this year to be intentional about reaching out to loved ones, friends, and neighbors.
Barclay said there has been a strong push by the APA and other organizations to check on neighbors or others you know who live alone. Leave food on their porch, or call or text them so they know someone is thinking about them.
And try not to spend too much time on social media, which can lead to low self-esteem as you scroll through friends whose lives seem perfect, especially compared to yours.
“Understand people are posting what they want you to see,” Rushton said. “It’s not something we should be spending hours a day on.” She said it’s important to be cognizant of our use of social media, what we do or say, and to be aware that anonymity can breed more negative interactions.
Barclay adds, “Spend as much time trying to read things that make you feel good…than on things that don’t make you feel good. If you’re scrolling Facebook and you know that it gets you fired up, go read a book, or go look at something else afterward…Purposefully look for pleasant stories.”
In all of our efforts to keep our mental health a priority this holiday season, Barclay said it’s important to remember that “Everybody is going through this together. Everything you’re feeling is valid, and this is one of the only things we’ve all experienced and we're experiencing similar things at the same time.”
She encourages individuals to feel comfortable, then, about reaching out to a friend or family member, or a clinician or therapist if help is needed.