Written by Bart Magee, Ph.D.
With our collective mental health already under tremendous strain after enduring nine months of restrictions, isolation, and fears of infection, we enter a holiday season and winter amid rising cases and renewed shutdown orders. Attending to mental health is more important than ever.
The following are my five tips for holiday and winter mental health first aid. I hope it helps you navigate a challenging holiday season.
Monitor your (mis)information diet and practice stress reduction. All humans are highly sensitive to negative information – t’s our built-in survival technique. We have to be perceptive to signs of danger in order to mobilize and protect ourselves. That’s the fight or flight response. When we perceive danger, our brains release hormones, primarily Adrenaline and Cortisol, to mobilize the body. This, however, is designed to be a temporary state; for example, increasing blood sugar needed for quick energy. Longer-term activation of the stress response system is highly damaging to physical and mental health, and paradoxically, leads to a diminished ability to cope with stress. With the overwhelming amount of negative and frightening news today, it’s important to limit your consumption. Ask yourself, what do I really need to know to keep myself and my family safe? You probably already have the information you need. In that case, news about daily changes in the course of the pandemic only keeps you in a state of higher stress. Remember, fact-based news can be mixed with misinformation making it hard to tell the difference. Look for positive stories, listen to music or to a stimulating podcast. Get outside for exercise daily and practice relaxation techniques.
Adjust expectations, stay flexible, and have a plan B. Another fundamental of human psychology is the need to predict the future. We plan and orient ourselves based on our ideas about what’s to come. We’ve all experienced how the pandemic has interrupted this process, but it doesn’t get any easier to let go of expectations. The holidays only increase this challenge. How can one make holiday plans when conditions seem to change on a daily basis? For some, simply giving up on all planning and living day to day may be the best solution. For others, continuing to think ahead provides a sense of control and engenders hope. If you’re a planner, think about building in flexibility, always keeping multiple options available. Rather than all your focus going toward your main objective, put some energy into a plan B.
Get in touch with your inner introvert. Cold weather, more shutdowns of public spaces, and fewer options for socializing means channeling the superpowers of the introvert. You introverts know what I mean. Quiet, solitude, few external distractions, and the absence of social demands allows for an inward focus on thoughts, feelings, moods, and fantasies. For true introverts, the pandemic has been a gift. Fortunately, psychology and personality exist on a spectrum which means even the most extroverted among us have latent introvert powers. Ask yourself, what kinds of solitary activities do you find beneficial? What are some ways that spending time alone can lead to personal growth and development? Are there books you wanted to read, creative pursuits or educational activities you’ve been interested in but haven’t had the time for? Meditation, walks in nature, writing in a journal, or exploring spirituality all can stimulate meaningful internal experiences. If you have access to therapy, there is no better time to make it a priority.
Take a creative, thoughtful, and methodical approach to socializing. Positive social interaction is essential for mental health and well-being. Every day brings news of new rules and restrictions around gathering and socializing, with many of those mandates seeming arbitrary, confusing, and contradictory. Add to that the extreme fatigue and loss we are all feeling. It’s easy to succumb to hopelessness and despair. We have to start by attending to these real and legitimate feelings of anger, sadness, and resentment and finds ways to express them. After recognizing the feelings, we can make space to think creatively about how to stay connected during these last months of restriction. Remember, there are still opportunities to socialize safely in outdoor settings. The virus has not changed and become more infectious; the basic principles of physical distance and air circulation still provide ample protection. While maintaining vigilance, keep reaching out to the people who are important to you and think with them about how you can connect.
Practice empathy and generosity. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve heard repeatedly that “we are all in this together,” so much so that it’s become almost a throw-away phrase. Sadly, in the U.S. many of the attitudes expressed in the media and much of the framing of the prevention response has been excessively individualistic. Rather than thoughtful advice about how to keep each other safe, advice that appreciates that we all have different needs and have to cope with distinct circumstances, we too often hear blaming and shaming. Not only does this attitude fail to change behavior (note the high U.S., infection rate compared countries in Asia and Africa), it leads to greater division and alienation. These and other negative feelings erode mental health. Empathy and generosity heal toxic feelings, create attachment, and enhance well-being. Empathy starts with truly putting yourself in your neighbor’s place, experientially and emotionally. Before giving into the impulse to judge someone’s behavior, think about where the other person is coming from and how you can offer compassion and understanding. By offering emotional and practical support to others, not only will you enhance your own feelings of well-being, but you will truly be contributing to the true spirit of “getting through it together.”