The holidays can be stressful, even in normal times, and mental health experts say the situation is much worse for many people during the pandemic.
Kim Penberthy knows only too well how difficult this time of year can be. She’s a PhD psychologist who has heard from plenty of patients battling holiday blues.
“People who’ve lost family, who don’t have family, who are financially strapped, who have bad memories of the holidays, who have unrealistic expectations,” Penberthy explains.
Making matters worse, cold weather is keeping us inside, and the sun sets much too early.
“We’re going into the winter with all the usual stressors – and then you add onto it the uncertainty and the fatigue of COVID.”
Worry about the pandemic aside, Penberthy says many coping strategies that would normally help are no longer an option.
“Things like getting together for holiday parties, holiday meals, on-going support systems like church or synagogue or other community activities are not really happening, even things like exercise. You know some of the gyms are not open. The same programming is not available.”
Some things that are available – eating or drinking too much, binging on sugar, fat or shopping – might do more harm than good. So Penberthy suggests we take full advantage of technology – visiting friends and relatives by Zoom or Facetime.
“There is something important about seeing someone’s face and being able to connect that way.”
Penberthy also recommends old-fashioned ways to connect.
“I’ve actually gotten hand-written letters, which is just wonderful, so it can be a letter. It can be an actual phone call – especially connecting to people who you know may be alone.”
And no matter how grumpy you might feel, make an effort to be nice and courteous in your dealings with others.
“It is amazing how powerful that can be for the person who actually does it. It feels good to be kind to other people. It feels good to be generous with your attention and your support and your words.”
Be good to yourself by getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and exercising – outdoors if possible.
“Even if it’s rainy, even if it’s cold just a few minutes outside, breathing the fresh air is so good, and if you can go for a walk and get some sunshine when it’s out, this all really, really helps.”
It’s okay to binge on TV programs as long as you’re not neglecting kids or other responsibilities, and it’s great to indulge in arts, crafts, writing and music.
“My husband and I got a new turntable, which is all the rage we found out, because we had vinyl records we wanted to play and didn’t have a turntable anymore.”
Penberthy also has praise for jigsaw puzzles, a relaxing way to pass the hours, and if you’ve thought about getting a dog or cat, now might be the time.
“Pets can be amazing companions – really stress reducing, there’s some evidence for that. So yes, pets are a great idea too.
Finally, she says, it’s important to see this time in our lives as a temporary challenge – a chance to prove ourselves and get stronger.
“Resilience doesn’t happen unless you have struggle – unless you have some challenge. Resilience is really moving through that challenge not necessarily unscathed but having learned from it and being able to continue on in a positive way. Just behave in a way now that you can be proud of.”
And don’t hesitate to ask for support. Mental health services are just a phone call, text or e-mail away.
- The Crisis text line is free and connects people with a real-life crisis counselor to help in the moment. Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the U.S. for support.
- If you live in or around Charlottesville, Region Ten Emergency Services phone (434) 972 2800, open 24/7 When you call the number after 5 pm, an answering service will take your name and number and a counselor will call back.