December 18, 2020

The Mental Health Experts’ Guide to Surviving the Holidays: 2020 Edition

Hanukkah is done, and here comes Christmas. The week leading to the holiday can be uniquely stressful for many, sometimes leading to anxiety and depression well into the New Year. We talked with Wayne State University School of Medicine psychiatrists Arash Javanbakht, M.D., an associate professor and director of the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research and Clinical Program, and Linda Saab, M.D., an assistant professor, who treat psychiatric patients about how to approach the holidays during the pandemic.

Both noted that while holiday blues are real, and can overlap with Seasonal Affective Disorder brought on by lack of sunshine and less daylight in the winter, the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 brings with it a whole new set of mental health obstacles around the holidays and likely well into 2021.

Here are six ways to make the holidays and 2021 both merry and bright:

  1. Keep your traditions going by embracing technology. “Any significant change is stressful, especially in a time where you’re socially restricted,” Dr. Javanbakht said. He prefers the term physical distancing to social distancing. “We are socially separated, but we need to stay socially connected.” He recommends embracing tools like Facetime and virtual meeting applications like Zoom and Skype instead of risking your health. “If you want to keep the connections, which I really recommend, you can be creative,” he said.
  1. For those pressured by family members and friends to attend large holiday gatherings, don’t lose sight of the real purpose behind holiday parties. “The purpose of these gatherings is to be happy and healthy. It is unfair for another person to want me to be unhappy. For them, it’s more of ‘This is a tradition and a rule that has to be followed,’” Dr. Javanbakht added. But in 2020, that rule doesn’t apply. “It looks different for everybody. At Thanksgiving for example, people really were still pushing to respect the recommendations and precautions but still have a meaningful holiday.”
  1. Have hope. “The politics of these days is extremely vicious and extremely stressful,” Dr. Javanbakht said. News of the vaccine has bolstered people’s outlook for 2021 to one of positivity. “There is a little more optimism in the air. That’s definitely something I appreciate,” Dr. Saab said. “With my own family, we stayed in at Thanksgiving. We’re recently married. It was definitely an opportunity for us to start a new tradition in our household, so that was a silver lining.”
  1. Take solace, and maybe a little joy, in the fact that deviating from the usual is good for you. This year has also brought less emphasis on spending money and dealing with family who normally cause stress. “For some people it could be harder, but for some people it will be easier,” Dr. Saab said.  Staying home on Christmas could be “what they’re looking forward to, instead of bracing themselves for the stress of it.”
  1. Keep perspective of the big picture. “I think most people are worried about that pressure from family. It resonates. Maintaining the connections you have can help. Acknowledge the hardship. Have space for those feelings. We want to be optimistic but also have that space for the stress of it and the knowledge that we’re all in it together,” Dr. Javanbakht said.
  1. Remember the little ones. If you have or are around young children, remember what this new normal may look like to them at such a special and anticipated time of year. “I’ve certainly seen a ton in the news about helping kids cope with these changes with COVID. Beyond routine, this time of year is a tradition,” Dr. Saab. “We aren’t withdrawing from these things. We are craving them. We haven’t done a lot of other things that normally make us happy." And, "Because kids don’t have very developed cognitive thought and structure, they look at their parents to appraise what’s happened,” Dr. Javanbakht added. “If parents look terrified, then so do the children. We have a tremendous impact on our children. Maybe we’ll want to do something pretty cool for our kids.”

For more tips and information on dealing with holiday stress during the pandemic, read Dr. Javanbakht’s articles on the subject in The Chicago Tribune and CNN.com, or watch his video here.

For people with severe anxiety and depression symptoms, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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