Preserving Your Mental Health During the Holidays

Ah, the holidays, that special time of year! It’s the glow of colorful lights as darkness comes earlier; looking out on a cold wet day from the comfort and warmth of home near the fireplace sipping a warm cup of cheer; Hallmark images of cozy homes, romantic snuggles and children nestled in their beds waiting for Santa on that magical night.

Only this year, not so much.

This year we are awash in another wave of COVID-19 cases, political strife that never seems to end, the economic impact of more shutdowns, isolation, financial stress, and continued health concerns for people at risk, the inconvenience of constant masking and the yearning desire to get back to normal. Add to all that, some unrealistic holiday expectations, even more than during normal times, and once again, we raise the stress and anxiety levels to new highs.

At some point, we are all Charlie Brown wondering what it all means.

I was struck recently by a car commercial on TV where the comfortably well-off characters “secret Santa” themselves the gift of a new car. Perhaps we can re-purpose that concept in a healthier way to provide some tips on preserving and caring for your mental health in these trying times.

Here are some gifts that I would like you to give yourself this year:

  1. The Gift of Perspective – My wish for you is to take the opportunity to pause, step back, assess, and gain some perspective. In those moments when we find ourselves getting stressed, we’ve often lost our perspective. We’ve lost sight of what we are trying to accomplish or what is truly important in the moment. The holidays are a celebration, but all too often they turn into an obligation. Perhaps, this year, we pause to clarify for ourselves what we must do, versus what we need to do, versus what other people want to do. Give yourself the gift of permission to take a moment, in fact take many moments, take as long as you need to sort these out.
  2. The Gift of Safety – This gift is both for yourself and all whom you love and care about. While you consider your holiday plans, be sure to consider your health and safety in those plans. Talk with your relatives about how you are going to maintain your health when exchanging gifts and especially if your family usually gathers for the holidays. Remember that family gatherings are, by far, the single most significant factor in the spread of the coronavirus. It’s particularly important that you be clear in your own mind on how you plan to maintain your health and safety to not get bullied into doing something foolish or that you don’t want to do.  Remember, we want you around for next year when we will be able to gather once again.
  3. The Gift of Calm – Give yourself permission to take time to breathe, slow down, calm yourself, relax and recharge. Give yourself the gift of doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it. The gift of time just to be present to yourself with no other obligations.
  4. The Gift of Reflection and Purpose – The dawning of a New Year provides an opportunity to reflect, refocus, and renew. Give yourself the gift of time to take stock of your life, your purpose, your goals, and your relationships. Take advantage of not being able to travel or gather and use it as an opportunity, particularly now, to consider what is important to you and yours, both in the past and the year ahead.
  5. The Gift of Connection – This is a gift both for yourself and for others in your life. Give yourself the gift of contemplating and being thankful for those who have supported you, in the past year and throughout your life. Give others the gift of contacting them. This is a time to find a way to connect differently. Holiday cards and a short note may mean more now than when we weren’t so isolated. Think of who is and has been there for you and reach out to them. And think about who needs you. Reach out to them and spread this gift that is needed now more than ever.
  6. The Gift of Hope – Finally, give yourself the gift of fostering your own sense of hope. Whether you are Christian or Jewish or not religious at all, realize that this has always been a time of joy and hope. Give yourself a way past the artificial lie of stress to find in your heart a sense of hope for a new beginning, for new health, gratitude for all that you have, and new resolve to face the challenges of the new year ahead.

Stress is a self-generated toxin that we don’t need right now. So, be kind to yourself and your own mental health. Give yourself some gifts. Give yourself the gift of time to gain perspective, to find calm, to be safe, to reconnect, and to reflect on what is good and true, about you, your loved ones, your friends, and your life. Above all, give yourself and your loved ones the gift of love and hope this holiday season. If you keep the focus on that, your mental health will be just fine.

Here’s wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season.

Paul Hammer, MD is a psychiatrist in the Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Department at Island Hospital. He earned his Medical Doctorate from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD. He went on to complete his psychiatry internship at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and his residency at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, CA. For information or appointments, call Psychiatry & Behavioral Health at (360) 299-4297.

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Published on December 16, 2020