Don’t neglect your mental health this holiday season

Originally published in the Williamson Herald

The holiday season is here, but it just doesn’t feel the same.  

As temperatures drop and activities move indoors, doctors and scientists are concerned that coronavirus cases will spread faster. Public health experts have urged Americans to minimize their travel and gathering sizes over the holidays.

As the days darken earlier, it can feel like a darkness has descended upon our lives.

Over the past few weeks, friends have shared their depression about canceled plans and loved ones who are sick or at risk, and the feeling that many in our society do not care about the health of the rest. Add the aftermath of one of the most highly charged elections in U.S. history, and you have a recipe for anxiety.

I’ve struggled with bouts of depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for over a decade. In my senior year of high school, I attempted suicide on a Tuesday, went to an inpatient center for two days, and returned to school on Friday. At the time, I didn’t speak of it to anyone but my closest friends.

I struggled to find meaning for years after that, and received hours of professional therapy. I’ve found a reason to live, and a purpose for my life. But I know how it feels to not want to get out of bed in the morning. I still feel hopeless and discouraged by our world at times. And I know how it feels to feel nothing at all.

If you’ve experienced these emotions lately, you aren’t alone.

Dr. Amanda Harrell of Nashville Psychotherapy Solutions in Brentwood says she has seen an uptick in mental health concerns from clients she counsels.

“If they already had pre-existing mental illness before this, it’s been exacerbated,” she says. “And people who don’t usually experience symptoms, they are. There’s just so much at one time.” Here are some practical ideas on how to cope with anxiety and depression during this season.

  1. Pay attention to what your body needs

    Have you been getting enough sleep, or sleeping too much? Drinking enough water? Drinking too much alcohol? Experiencing chronic pain? All these things can affect your mental state. Becoming aware of and getting a handle on your physical problems first can help improve your mental health. If you do have an underlying mental health condition, make sure you are treating it appropriately, either with talk therapy, medication, or both.

  2. Recognize your need for socialization

    Reducing social interactions has impacted almost all of us in a negative way. “Not going to church or Bible studies or book clubs, I think all of that provided different mood benefits that we didn’t realize until they’re gone,” Dr. Harrell says. Stay in touch with your support system any way you can, whether though FaceTime, phone calls, socially distanced meetups, or writing letters. Dr. Harrell suggests participating ins Zoom social events. As she has told clients, “It’s not the same, but in terms of trying to help you cope, it’s better than nothing.”

  3. Put down the phone

    I have often found myself stuck in the spiral of checking various social media apps at the end of the day, growing more frustrated with every click and swipe. In addition to evidence about the negative effects of social media, research shows using a phone right before bed suppresses sleep. Try setting a timer on your social media apps to limit the amount of time you spend each day. Before bed, instead of picking up your phone, set it across the room and pick up a book or journal.

  4. Get outside and get moving

    When you don’t feel like doing anything, your last priority may be to exercise. This is where discipline comes in. If you make it to the gym or complete even a 10-minute at-home workout, you will feel better about yourself, and gain a small dose of confidence. Over time, those workouts add up to improve strength, endurance, and mental well-being.

    I’m also a big believer in the power of nature, and there’s a myriad of studies to back that feeling up. Even a 20-30 minute walk on a trail can improve your mood and energy. Some of my local favorites are Radnor Lake, Bicentennial Park, and Smith Park.

  5. Consider light therapy

    For those with SAD like me, light therapy may be useful. Many therapists recommend using a light box that emits 10,000 lux (a measurement of light strength) to use when you awake each morning. The bright light stimulates cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, which controls the circadian rhythm. I use my “Happy Light” in the mornings while reading or writing for about 30 minutes, shining it on the side of my face. For me, the increase in energy is noticeable. Consult your doctor or therapist before beginning, as those with certain conditions might experience issues.

  6. Spend time engaged in spirituality

    As a Christian, I spend some time each morning praying, reading, and meditating on the Bible. Dr. Harrell says if you have a spiritual side, it can be especially helpful to embrace it. “That’s maybe one of the things you can do, even with COVID restrictions,” she says. Try adding a daily meditation practice or checking out books that make you think more deeply about your faith. The Williamson County Public Library even has a curbside service!

  7. Embrace the volunteer spirit

    When I’m caught up in self-pity, I’ve found helping others gives me perspective and a sense of gratitude. “Volunteering is a great way to not only help the fellow man, but to improve your mood, and get you out of your head,”says Dr. Harrell. You don’t have to look far to find people in need of support right now. You might start with your local community or faith group.

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