Beating back holiday blues during the pandemic

The holidays are a time of joy, giving, family and friends. They can also be a time of stress, sadness and loneliness — all compounded by a pandemic stretching into its second year.

“The holidays are so romanticized and I think that really can make people feel isolated and lonely — that things should be a particular way, or I should feel a particular way, and then spending time to try to create that ideal, which sometimes just isn’t feasible,” said Neda Gould, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Many put undue pressure on themselves by setting unrealistic expectations during the holidays — pressure that has been exacerbated by COVID-19.

“There’s, broadly speaking, so much grief associated with the past couple of years,” Gould said. “And it’s of course related to the loss of loved ones, but also there’s financial losses and the loss of the way things were — getting together with family that may not be feasible during this time of year. And then, on top of that, the anxiety of gatherings and how do we keep everyone safe with this kind of ever-evolving, unpredictable and uncertain nature of COVID?”

Gould said one way to cope with the uncertainty is to simply acknowledge that “it’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to hold both of those feelings: Of feeling happy about something, but also really sad and a sense of grief.”

Another coping mechanism is to see the silver lining and use the pandemic to experiment and create new traditions.

Reaching out while realizing others aren’t having a picture-perfect holiday either, is also key.

“You see these images of people and feel like, ‘Well, everyone is experiencing the holidays in a particular way, and it’s just me. I’m the only one who has the blues, or the depression or anxiety.’ And, you know, I promise that whatever you’re experiencing, you’re not alone,” Gould said.

“So that’s why it becomes important to share your experiences with others, in whatever way you’d like. With a next-door neighbor, with a phone call to a friend, with a support group —  whatever it may be — because then you can develop that sense of connection, even when you feel so disconnected,” she said.

Gould recommends looking inward and taking care of yourself.

“It’s interesting because the times we need to practice that the most, such as during the holidays when we’re most stressed … we tend to practice the self-care tools the least. The time we really need to focus on our well being, we tend to kind of push it to the side and just plow through,” she said.

Instead, Gould recommends basic, but important measures such as getting enough sleep and at least some form of physical activity.

Other tips experts recommend include:

  • Eating a healthy snack before holiday meals;
  • Limiting alcohol and tobacco use;
  • Limiting time spent looking at social media or reading the news;
  • Creating a holiday budget and sticking to it;
  • Deep-breathing and other mindfulness exercises;
  • Carving out alone time for yourself, even if it’s just 15 minutes a day.

Give yourself a mental break as well.

“Just think about what’s in your control,” Gould said. “So many things aren’t in our control, but there are still things that are. We can consider focusing on those.”

As for things out of your control, “consider simplifying some of those.”

But in a region known for Type A personalities, letting go, or learning to say no is easier said than done.

Gould acknowledged that control issues can be a problem, so start small.

“You don’t have to let go of everything. But, is there one thing you’d be willing to let somebody else do this year?

“I use the example of baking one less pie, or buying some food or gifts, as opposed to making them,” Gould said. “But it’s hard. I think we like tradition … and we can get stuck in that. But I think it’s stepping back and just asking yourself what matters to me most and focusing on those things. And, [for] the things that matter less, being flexible on and asking for help.”

Gould has similar advice for daunting New Year’s resolutions: Keep them small so you don’t set yourself up for failure.

Instead of pledging to lose 20 pounds, start with exercising once a week and gradually increase that number.

“Those types of changes can be sustainable,” Gould said. “It’s kind of unrealistic to wake up and essentially do things completely differently, for most of us.”

But if your mood isn’t improving by the new year, it may be time to consider that what you’re experiencing goes deeper than the holiday blues.

Gould said clear signs of clinical depression include consistent loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, and changes in sleep, appetite and energy.

“The key distinction is that the depression causes some impairment in one’s life,” she said. “So, for example, you might miss work … or you’re feeling so down that you have trouble getting out of bed, or you don’t want to engage with anybody.”

Gould stressed that “there’s no right or wrong way to feel. Just honor your feelings. And, if you notice your feelings are really interfering with your quality of life, then there is mental health care out there and it’s important to reach out.”

Anna Gawel

Anna Gawel joined WTOP in 2020 and works in both the radio and digital departments. Anna Gawel has spent much of her career as the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, which has been the flagship publication of D.C.’s diplomatic community for over 25 years.

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