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NEWS | Dec. 17, 2020

Holiday season can be a stressful time

By Brad Rhen Pennsylvania National Guard

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. – For many, the holiday season is a joyous time of year.

For others, including those with mental health disorders such as depression, the holiday season can be a stressful time.

There are the stressors that come with the holidays, like buying gifts and getting together with family, seasonal depression brought about by shorter days, and work stressors like end-of-year duties and deadlines.

“For many people, the period of time between November and January is not always the most wonderful time of the year,” said Lori Murphy, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s director of psychological health. “For those already diagnosed with mental illness such as depression or anxiety, the additional holiday stressors can leave them feeling as though they cannot meet stressful demands, cope with family issues or manage financial or work expectations, leaving them with increased feelings of sadness, unworthiness, hopelessness or guilt.”

Jolene Richardson, director of psychological health for the 193rd Special Operations Wing, agreed that the holidays can be stressful. Anyone – not just people with mental health issues or depression – can struggle during the holidays, she said.

“The holidays can be a difficult time due to feeling pressure to meet family, societal and self-expectations and can trigger grief and loss issues,” she said. “Grief and loss can be caused by many things to include missing deceased loved ones, longing for a partner to celebrate with, or family dynamics that are challenging.”

This year’s holidays look to be even more stressful, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, a slumping economy that has caused many people to lose jobs, and the presidential election, Murphy said.

“In my opinion, the social isolation and large amount of loss due to the pandemic will make this holiday season more difficult than others,” she said. “Many people have lost loved ones this year and will miss their presence during the holidays, but others have lost their jobs, businesses or work hours, weddings were postponed, school milestone events such as proms and graduations were canceled, not to mention the loss of a normal routine that we all want to get back to.”

Richardson also believes this year’s holiday season will be more difficult than others. Due to COVID-19, this might be the first time many people don’t celebrate the holiday with their families, even if they live in the same town, she said.

“Some may be spending the holidays alone,” she said. “Many people will be missing traditions such as attending in-person religious services and holiday parties. This year we need to be more creative with celebrating the holidays, adapting established traditions or creating new ones. It’s important to still seek ways to connect with others as well as your spirituality during this time even if it can’t be in person.”

There are several things people can do to cope with mental health stress, whether it’s during the holidays or any other time, Murphy said. Among her suggestions: use technology to connect with loved ones, get outside and just relax.

Richardson recommends practicing self-care such as exercise, meditation, yoga, calling a friend, or taking a bath.

“Do something you enjoy even if it’s just for a small amount of time each day,” she said. “Consider what your boundaries are regarding how to stay safe during COVID-19 and how to manage your time. This might mean declining a family member’s invitation, not shopping at a crowded store, or asking a friend to wear a mask if you get together.”

Any service member who feels depressed and may be considering suicide is urged to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Lori Murphy, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s director of psychological health, said the most important coping skill is to learn to recognize your holiday triggers, such as financial pressures, physical distancing or personal demands, so you can solve them before they lead to further problems. With a plan and some positive thinking, you can find your holiday peace and joy. Here are some holiday coping ideas:

Financial. Decide how much money you can afford to spend and stick to your budget. Or donate to a charity in someone’s name, make homemade gifts or start a gift exchange where you draw a single name, rather than getting gifts for the whole group.

Still celebrate. Even if you’re alone or with just a small group, dress up. Set a beautiful table and treat yourself to a delicious meal. Don’t be afraid to make a family favorite, or maybe prepare a smaller, but still traditional menu. Or support a local business by ordering takeout.

Use technology. Use video chat to bring family and friends together. Plan a virtual dinner or holiday party. Call, text, FaceTime or Zoom with friends and relatives who might be alone. Plan a virtual gift exchange. Binge on your favorite holiday movies and FaceTime with a friend so you can watch together. Attend a virtual religious service.

Get outside. Walk or run or go on a bike ride. It’ll boost your vitamin D, release some endorphins, and work off some of that apple pie. Or take a walk at night and check out the stars and holiday decorations. Volunteer, donate to a food pantry or drop off a meal for a homebound neighbor.

Relax. Make some time for yourself. Find an activity you enjoy, such as listening to music, reading a book or painting, and spend just 15 minutes alone, without distractions doing it. You may be shocked by how well this reduces stress. Try one of these mobile apps: Breathe2Relax, Dream EZ, or Mindfulness Coach to help clear your mind, slow your breathing and restore inner peace.

Reach Out. Having a lot of support during difficult times when you may feel lonely or sad can be a helpful distraction. Many organizations now have websites, online support groups, or virtual events that can offer support and companionship.