The holidays are a stressful time in any year. Add to them political unrest and a pandemic that’s led to isolation, fear, economic loss and disruptions of routine, and it’s little wonder our mental health is fraying. But don’t lose hope. There are effective strategies for coping with it all.
“The holidays are difficult enough, but the pandemic dramatically changes everything and causes more loss of traditions that can’t be observed this year. All losses have to be processed, so it’s a lot more emotional work during an already difficult time,” says Dr. Maria-Maria Anleu, adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist with Beloit Memorial Hospital in Beloit, Wis.
Scary times can be made less scary with the right approach and a tool bag of coping skills, she says.
Anleu’s practice is comprised of 70 percent children/adolescents and 30 percent adults. She’s seen a rise in the number of people who’ve developed emotional problems since the pandemic began.
“It has just lasted too long,” she says.
More teens and adults of all ages are experiencing anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Children whose behavior was mostly under control are acting out and children who had no behavioral problems before are having them now. Children act out by being more emotional or aggressive with others partly because they can’t put their feelings into words, she says.
Every age group and personality handles stress differently. One good thing about people spending more time at home is the opportunity it presents to step up communication.
“Parents need to talk to their kids and then let them take the lead by asking questions,” says Anleu. “Don’t assume they’re doing okay. Everyone needs to know the truth, explained in an age-appropriate way, and to get clarity for irrational fears and uncertainties.”
Parents can initiate conversations by asking their children how they feel about not going to school and not seeing their friends.
Basic information about the pandemic should be given to young children, she says. Middle schoolers and teens need to know more facts and should be told there are many unknowns, but also should be told the future is bright with promises of vaccines and better treatments.
Once children are given an explanation, adults need to create an opportunity for them to ask questions; not all children will inquire if they’re not prompted or given the opportunity to speak.
“Nobody knows how long the pandemic is going to last and everyone is feeling out of control because we can’t have the normal Christmas traditions,” says Anleu. “We miss people who are gone and it all adds up to an especially stressful time when we’re all supposed to be happy.”
Very young children who are sociable and miss their friends and teachers are having the most difficulty, says Anleu. Depression among adults has risen and parents with young children, elderly parents and a career are especially challenged.
All adults need to practice better self-care these days, says Anleu.
Take time out from worries by scheduling a break each day to do something enjoyable. Schedule relaxation time of watching TV or a movie, doing crafts or hobbies, going outside for a walk, talking with friends, or finding a cozy corner to do some reading. Make a list of the things you like to do, so you can refer to it every day for ideas, she suggests.
It also helps to plan ahead. The holidays will be different and difficult, but there will be less anxiety if you plan. Try to keep some traditions, even though the people you normally see will be contacted in other ways. Enjoy your memories of the past.
If you’re grieving the loss of someone, know it’s okay to feel sad or angry, and to miss the person.
“Taking care of yourself” means different things to each of us, but can include pacing ourselves by doing only what we comfortably can do, working on everyday tasks, getting more sleep or exercise, eating better, focusing on spiritual matters and anything that makes us feel good but is not self-destructive.
Telltale signs that we’re not coping well include not being able to function normally, finding it difficult to get out of bed and not being able to get work done. If you can’t sleep, can’t stay awake, can’t eat, are binge eating, are in a bad mood all the time, or can’t stop crying, get help. If you’re concerned about the risks of in-person appointments, know that many providers offer tele-health services.
You know you’re handling things reasonably well if you can eat and sleep normally and can carry on with work, relationships and everyday tasks, whether or not you always feel happy.
The coming of a new year won’t cure all of our problems overnight, but there’s good reason to believe the future will be brighter with every passing month. Meanwhile, be good to yourself and others, knowing you’re not alone in these stressful times and this, too, shall pass. ❚