For those who are grieving, estranged from their families or already living with a mental health issue, November and December can be a difficult time of year.
People with a mental health condition may be more prone to the so-called “holiday blues,” which are often tied to financial strain, loneliness, colder weather and other factors. Sixty-four percent of people with a mental illness report the holidays make their conditions worse, according to the National Alliance Mental Illness.
Millions of Americans also experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression causing symptoms that begin in the fall and last until spring or summer.
Experts say all of these factors are likely to be exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people are feeling an unprecedented level of stress. Many are also cut off from their support networks and social outlets. Mental health professionals are anticipating a rise in suicide related to the crisis, and many help lines have been flooded with demand.
“The uncertainty of the circumstances we all find ourselves in is something our minds are not really equipped for,” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. “it ultimately ends up being a chronic stressor, even for people who don’t normally feel that way.”
Older people, especially those who live in rural areas, may be experiencing chronic loneliness during the pandemic, which experts say presents a major suicide risk.
At Sierra Services for the Blind in Nevada City, where 87% of clients are over age 80, director Richard Crandall says mental health has been a huge concern.
“Isolation is a problem already, and with the COVID thing we’ve got the media scaring them half to death with, ‘you’re all gonna die’,” he said.
The organization is no longer able to hold in-person support groups or social outings due to the pandemic, so counselors are calling people daily to check in on them.
“What’s happening is, we’re the only ones that have contacted them in a lot of cases,” he said. “What usually would have been a ten minute phone call is an hour, because they just need someone to talk to.”
Experts recommend calling your isolated loved ones this holiday season, and connecting with friends and family virtually if you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, loneliness or other emotional challenges.
Evan Marmol, a licensed clinical social worker who speaks publicly about his obsessive-compulsive disorder through Sacramento’s Stop Stigma speaker’s bureau, says sticking to a normal routine during the winter months can help stave off a holiday slump.
“Focus on those things that you can control,” he said. “Getting enough sleep, exercise, … maybe not getting overly involved in social media. Finding ways to disconnect and reconnect with the activities that do help us recharge our batteries.”
The Stop Stigma campaign offers a list of local mental health resources here. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
We asked Simon-Thomas of UC Berkeley to break down a few key strategies for staving off negative feelings during the winter months:
“We can be very deliberate about saying thank you to other people who we interact with. And when we do so, we say thank you in a more specific way than maybe we do by habit. I call this ‘gratitude one, two, three,’ and what it means is describing what the other person did, acknowledging the effort that they put in … And then three is describe how it benefited you.
It really supercharges the benefit interpersonally of gratitude. You feel better, the other person feels better. Your sense of closeness feels better. You can do this over a video conference. You can write it down in a letter. You can do it over the phone.
And again, it's not just for your close, trusted, supportive loved ones. You can speak this way to the person bagging up your groceries or others who you happen to interact with.”
“This is the experience of being in the present, that sort of challenges your sense of what's ordinary and available and comprehensible. One of the most reliable ways to elicit awe or to invoke awe in yourself and in others is to spend time in nature, to go outdoors. Thankfully, being outdoors is one of the safer ways to spend time. Put on your jacket, walk somewhere where there's a little bit of green: trees, foliage, grass. And really dwell in the magnificence of nature.
It makes you feel humble. It makes you feel a sense of common humanity. You feel inspired and elevated, and your tendency towards generosity is increased. And shared awe is this very connecting and restorative experience.”
“No harm in finding a few good clean jokes to tell and share with your friends. Or one of the practices we often teach is asking other people to tell you about what went well. What did they experience recently that was really joyous or made them feel proud or sense of fulfillment? And then get them to talk about it a lot. And that shared conversation about what's going really well can also be a sort of an optimism engine.”
“Most people can benefit tremendously from getting more acquainted with their breath. Turns out when we breathe out, when we exhale more slowly than we inhale, we engage the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve. And what it does is slow down our heart rate … we calm that bodily response to stress and anxiety to worry, that really, if we don't calm it, sort of reverberates the emotional experience for a longer period of time.
Since we're not as able to engage in interpersonal touch in the times of COVID-19, there's also a lot to be gained from things that might feel a little goofy, but actually really work. Like, you know, putting your own hand across your heart and closing your eyes and letting that touch towards yourself feel like the same nurturing, supportive touch that you might have received at another time from a close friend or family member.
These really simple activities and exercises can do wonders for shifting the trajectory of our emotional experience in the moment towards one that will be more conducive of our long term wellbeing.”