How to boost your mental health over the holidays
By Carolyn Ali
These strategies could help you get through — and even enjoy — a very different December
It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but this December has an added layer of anxiety, as we try to figure out how to celebrate the holidays during a global health pandemic.
“For many people, it’s going to be a more stressful time of year than usual,” says Dr. Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. Those who generally travel to see family and friends will be staying home, and festivals and rituals will be disrupted as people stick to their social bubbles.
So how can we boost our mental health while staying physically safe? “People need to be proactive,” Taylor says. Focus on your mental wellness now and think about how you can increase the positives and reduce your stressors.
Here are six strategies to consider.
Plan now to avoid panic buying later
“There’s going to be a Christmas shopping rush,” says Taylor. “And if we’re looking at another lockdown, there’s going to be another panic buying episode.” He notes that a spike in panic buying already happened during the second wave of COVID-19 in the U.K. “Panic buying during the pandemic is not driven by what’s in the supply chain. It’s driven by fear of what your fellow shopper is going to do…the fear of missing out.”
Taylor, who wrote The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease, notes that something similar happened during the outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1918.
“Around Christmas time, shoppers were flocking to the stores,” he says. “They were supposed to be social distancing. Health authorities and police were just throwing up their hands and saying ‘Please! Move along people. There’s no need to congregate in big crowds here.’ The same thing is going to happen here unless we’re really careful about social distancing. The more we get out and congregate together in unsafe ways, the longer this pandemic is going to last.”
To stay safe and avoid panic buying, it helps to understand the urge. “Most people think, ‘Oh, I’ll deal with panic buying by trying to get ahead of the crowd,’” he says. “That puts you in the middle of the crowd because everyone is thinking the same idea.”
He encourages people to shop online, and if there is a period of panic buying, just wait it out; an episode usually lasts about a week to 10 days.
Be aware of emotion-focused coping
During the first wave of lockdown last spring, online shopping was one of the things that people did to make them feel better. “It’s called emotion-focused coping,” says Taylor. “You’re coping with a situation not by changing the situation, but by dampening your feelings of distress around it.”
He notes that during normal holiday seasons, people often purchase too many things, and they may be more inclined to do so this year.
“The holiday period is a time when people overindulge. And that’s mostly okay,” he says. “Except during the last lockdown, the people who were coping the most poorly were overindulging to a large extent: they were abusing drugs and alcohol, overeating, massively shopping online. That creates further problems, so people need to be mindful of that.”
Identify what works for you
In addition to avoiding emotion-based coping, we need to promote positive ways of coping. Eating well, sleeping well, and getting physical exercise is important for everyone. Taylor also encourages individuals to think back to the lockdown and identify what other activities and behaviours worked well for them.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all answer,” he says. It could be setting meaningful goals, baking bread or just kicking back and watching Netflix. “Ask yourself: ‘What am I going to do that gives me a sense of safety, fulfillment and enjoyment during this holiday period?’”
Even if you’re home alone, it’s important to stay connected to others. “Plan out ways of being with people safely,” he says, whether that’s through a virtual gathering or a socially distanced walk.
For those missing their traditional annual gatherings, consider this an opportunity to try something new. “It can be good to shake things up,” he says. “Ask yourself, what have I always wanted to do that I could try now?”
Cultivate community spirit
The daily cheer for health-care professionals went a long way to fostering a sense of community last spring. Over the holidays, cultivating community spirit can also help us boost our individual spirits.
“We need to try to reinvigorate the altruism that we saw months ago,” Taylor says. Think about ways you can give back to the community, such as donating to local charities. You could also spread cheer by hanging lights from your home and, when permitted, enjoy holiday festivities outside in a socially distanced manner. “This all increases our sense of belonging and togetherness, which is really important because we don’t have those opportunities to get out and physically congregate.”
Reach out for help if you need it
What if you’re just not up for seasonal cheer?
“There are some people with enduring mental health problems who are going to have a really tough time during this period,” Taylor acknowledges. He adds that there was a spike in drug and alcohol abuse during the last lockdown, and B.C. has an opioid crisis. “It’s really important that people reach out and get help.”
Research shows that online mental health supports are available but Canadians aren’t accessing them. Options include the Canadian Mental Health Association’s BounceBack B.C. and BounceBack Ontario programs.
Emergency mental health services and crisis lines are also available. “People need to realize that it’s not a sign of weakness to call these lines,” Taylor says. “It’s a sign of courage.”
Reflect on resilience
While the holiday period may indeed be difficult, it’s also an opportunity to take stock of the good. Preliminary evidence in Taylor’s research shows that 45 percent of people surveyed (in a sample size of several thousand) are actually finding silver linings during the COVID-19 storm. “People need not simply just endure a disaster and recover,” he explains. “They can actually grow as human beings as a result of a stressful experience.”
The end of the year is traditionally a time of reflection, and you don’t need to wait until the pandemic is over to notice post-traumatic growth. “It can be useful for people to take stock and ask themselves, ‘Has anything good come out of this? Have I learned to appreciate the little things in life, or my community or my friends? Have I grown more resilient to stress or better able to tolerate uncertainty?’”
“It’s okay to find silver linings,” he adds. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to find meaning in this and finding joy.”
The good news? You may be more resilient than you think. “Most people will bounce back from this pandemic,” he says. “We’ve been through countless pandemics as a species in the past. We will get through this one.”
Carolyn Ali is a writer for UBC’s Brand and Marketing.
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