That is not uncommon around the holidays. Many people may also experience feelings of depression or sadness at this time of year. It may seem counterintuitive, considering the holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but mental well-being this time of year is a real problem many people grapple with.
In the world of health care, we focus a lot on how to keep people physically healthy, but it is also just as important to focus on mental health. Anyone’s mental health can suffer at different times in our lives: a personal setback, the loss of a friend or loved one, or general despair about the world around you can trigger mental wellness challenges.
Depression, anxiety and stress all chip away at our mental health and when not managed properly, can lead to bigger problems down the road. These challenges can come up anytime, but sometimes they are more common around the holiday season.
“The holidays can create additional stress on many people. Additionally, if someone occasionally has feelings of sadness and loneliness, those emotions can be exacerbated,” explains Dr. Norma Escamilla, a family practice physician.
“For the 2020 holiday season, mental wellness may be a concern for even more people,” says Dr. Mark Hammonds, a primary care physician. “Because COVID-19 has caused so much additional stress and will likely keep many families apart for the holidays, we all need to pay extra attention to our mental well-being this year.”
What is Mental Health?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health “includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”
The term “poor mental health” is often used interchangeably with “mental illness,” but this is not accurate. The CDC says, “mental illnesses are conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood or behavior, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.” Someone can be in poor mental health but not have a mental illness and someone with a diagnosed mental illness can also enjoy periods of good mental health.
Mental health is an important component of our overall health. It is proven that certain mental illnesses, such as depression, increase the likelihood of serious physical health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. Conversely, the onset of serious physical health problems can contribute to mental health challenges.
Mental illness is common: more than one-half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lives. One in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year, including children.
Fortunately, mental illnesses can be treated and overcome. Therapy, counseling and prescription medication can all help defeat a mental illness. “The first thing to remember is that there is no stigma or shame in acknowledging a mental health challenge and seeking help for it,” says Dr. Benjamin Marcum, a family practice physician. “We don’t stigmatize people for getting cancer or heart disease and we must not do it for mental health concerns.”
Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental illnesses and both can be more prevalent around the holidays.
Depression is characterized by recurring feelings of sadness and hopelessness. It may lead to being withdrawn and a sense of worthlessness. While it is perfectly normal for everyone to feel sad or worried once in a while, a continuous state of such feelings is unhealthy and requires treatment.
People who suffer from an anxiety disorder are confronted with feelings of dread, fear and terror in certain situations. Occasional feelings of anxiety are normal, but a constant or frequent state of feeling this way is a sign to seek help.
Stress is not a mental health disorder; it is a term that incorporates how the body and mind respond to different difficult situations. Stress can be a good thing: it can ready our bodies to deal with a dangerous situation by helping us flee or fight. This kind of stress is characterized by physiological reactions such as quickened pulse, accelerated breathing and perspiration.
Other stress is routine, such as you might experience when trying to meet a work deadline or run all of your errands on time. Stress becomes a problem when it is chronic. When people feel continuously stressed out, their mental and physical health may be damaged. Chronic stress can contribute to depression and anxiety. It can take a physical toll on the body, leading to digestive problems, high blood pressure and lack of sleep. Stress can also lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as neglecting exercise, overeating and drinking too much alcohol.
Coping with Holiday Stress
For many, the holidays bring unwanted stress. Figuring out what presents to get for people on your list, trying to buy gifts while staying within a budget, preparing holiday meals and traveling can all be a lot to deal with. This can be an unfortunate downside of the holidays, a time of year that should be enjoyable, not stressful.
The Mayo Clinic offers several suggestions for dealing with holiday stress, including planning ahead to avoid last-minute scrambling for gifts or meals, creating a budget and keeping to it, not worrying about everything being perfect, and learning to say “no.” After all, you can’t and should not be expected to do everything and you need to give yourself permission to relax.
“Many people tend to place unrealistic demands on themselves during the holiday season by trying to make everyone happy and everything perfect,” observes Dr. John Staniland, a primary care physician. “That can be counterproductive and unhealthy – we just needlessly add to our stress levels and make it virtually impossible to enjoy ourselves and the company of our friends and family. We are better off taking a deep breath, remembering that this time of year is one meant to be enjoyed, and just not sweat the small stuff.”
Holiday stress can lead to unhealthy behaviors. For example, by spending excessive amounts of time planning meals, cooking, shopping, wrapping presents and decorating, we have less time to focus on our own well-being. We may sacrifice exercise to create more time for holiday-related chores. “It’s important to keep up your exercise routine for your physical health, but also for your mental health,” says Dr. Michelle Torres, a primary care physician. “Exercise helps relieve stress and can clear the mind.”
Stress can also exacerbate other common holiday health traps, such as eating too much and over-indulging in foods high in fat and sugar. For some, excess stress can lead to unhealthy levels of alcohol consumption. Doctors recommend that men not drink more than two alcoholic beverages per day and women drink only one.
COVID and the Holidays
The holidays can be stressful and take a mental toll in the best of times. The 2020 holiday season is going to be more challenging than usual due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. People are advised to forgo traditional holiday gatherings and parties and only celebrate with the close family you live with. This is to protect our health and those around us, especially older relatives who are more susceptible to COVID-19. And while this is definitely the best thing to do for our physical health, it may result in some collateral damage to our mental health. For many, especially older folks who may not be able to see their children or grandchildren, feelings of sadness and isolation could result.
To cope with the changed circumstances this holiday season, try utilizing video conferencing technology, such as FaceTime or Zoom, to stay virtually connected with close friends and family. No, it won’t be the same, but it will still help. This pandemic won’t last forever – hopefully by next year there will be a safe and effective vaccine that will help protect us from COVID-19. Focus on the better times ahead and think about what you will do to celebrate once it is safe to be around people outside your home again.
Take Care of Yourself
2020 has been a tough year for all of us. Do not be afraid to ask for help if you’re feeling blue or a little down this holiday season. It is perfectly normal to experience feelings of stress, anxiety or sadness. If you feel yourself experiencing these feelings frequently, call your physician and schedule an appointment to discuss it. Just like you would call your doctor if there was something hurting inside your body, you should call your doctor if your thoughts or feelings do not seem quite right. Most importantly, make time for yourself, relax and think about the better days that lie ahead.
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