MENTAL HEALTH

Yes, the holidays will be different this year

Even if you don't get together with family and friends in person this Thanksgiving, you can still connect and celebrate
Even if you don’t get together with family and friends in person this Thanksgiving, you can still connect and celebrate over the phone or online. (Adobe Stock)

Even in a normal year, the holidays can be stressful, with the high expectations we place on ourselves to find the perfect gifts, plan the perfect meals and make everything merry and bright.

This year, the pandemic brings an unwelcome wave of additional worries.

TO GET TOGETHER IN PERSON OR NOT?

Dr. Don Damsteegt, psychologist and owner of Family Psychology Associates in Cedar Rapids, says that family conflict — where old resentments and frustrations can flare up — can be a huge source of stress. This year, any disagreement over how much social distance should be maintained could add to those arguments.

“Some people think, we’re just going to get together. We’re going to hug. We’re going to have a gathering. Other people say, ‘I’m uncomfortable being too close, uncomfortable sitting in a living room or kitchen with eight other people for an hour or two,’” Damsteegt said.

“So a suggestion I’d have would be to practice empathy. When someone has a sensitivity about the virus or is frustrated about not having enough contact, be empathetic, say, ‘yeah, I can imagine that’s how you feel,’ and not be critical.”

As virus cases spike locally and around the country, more families may choose not to get together in person.

“Definitely, the lack of socialization has been a real struggle for many of the people that we see,” said Julie Gondek, owner and therapist at Eastern Iowa Family Counseling in Solon. “It has definitely impacted their overall well-being. It’s also the fact that we don’t know when this is going to end,” she said. “It continues to go on and on and makes it hard for people to plan ahead for the future.”

RETHINKING traditions

Holiday traditions also are being impacted by the pandemic. For many people, the office Christmas party and secret Santa gifts have been put on hold, with so many people working from home. In the same way, if your extended family isn’t getting together in person, you might not feel like cooking a big turkey or making a big meal.

“The big piece I think is just the loss of all the normal things in your life,” said Renee Schulte, a mental health consultant and coach from Urbandale.

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Schulte will speak on the topic “Healthy Holidays & Beyond: Tips for Self-Care from a Pro” as part of a free online mental health conference on Friday hosted by NAMI Linn County: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Register online at namiiowaannualconference.eventbrite.com.)

According to Schulte, the day before Thanksgiving has come to be known as “Blackout Wednesday,” for the high level of alcohol consumption that day.

“This year, we might have less drunken driving because people aren’t getting together as much, but you’ve got more people isolated and at home,” she said, “and if that is a coping mechanism, you’ll see more alcohol use.”

CARE FOR YOURSELF, CONNECT WITH OTHERS

Schulte promotes what she refers to as the ABC’s of self-care: activity, boundaries and connection. Activity can include exercise, especially outdoors to boost vitamin D intake. For boundaries, people need to set limits, whether it be on your time, your sleep schedule, or your food and alcohol intake. And for connections, people need to be creative in finding new ways to connect with their family and friends, especially this year.

“Our data shows that at least a third of Iowans right now would be considered anxious or depressed,”

Schulte said. “So if you’re doing well, chances are somebody on either side of you is not. Use the opportunity to connect and just check in on people.”

Some people will be experiencing grief this holiday season because they have lost a friend or family member, perhaps from COVID-19. Mona McCalley-Whitters, executive director of NAMI Linn County, is spreading the message through the Make It OK campaign that there is help for people who are grieving or dealing with unexpected tragedy.

“This has been a difficult year, and it’s OK to not be OK and ask for help,” she said. “We’re teaching people how to have these conversations about their mental health.”

McCalley-Whitters suggests that people reframe how they think about the holidays. Instead of setting high expectations in advance of how the holidays should be, take the pressure off yourself this year.

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“We need to shift gears and think a little bit more about joy rather than happiness,” she said. “Joy and happiness in my mind aren’t the same thing. Happiness comes more from people or places or events — external things. But joy, as I visualize it, it’s more of an inside job.”

If you’re feeling more stressed than usual this holiday season, to the point that you’re having trouble sleeping or participating in your daily activities, there are options for getting help. Start by talking with your primary care physician or contacting a local mental health resource.

No matter what your holidays look like this year, communication will be key.

“Connect, that human contact is important,” Gondek said. “Whether it’s standing outside someone’s window to be able to see them or sending pictures to each other, text messages, phone calls — that connection is so important for us on a daily basis.”

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