By Michael Young, MD, Service Chief of The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt

I’m sorry to be a Grinch, but like everything else this year, COVID may have a big impact on your holiday plans. The holidays should be a festive time, filled with family and friends and parties. As the holiday song says, it’s supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year”! Instead, we’re all making a list and checking it twice about the latest COVID restrictions and number of new cases. Colder weather, the looming flu season, and uncertainty about which of our beloved, festive traditions are still safe to participate in has made it pretty tough to be merry.

But truthfully, the holidays have always been tough for some people. As a mental health provider, I understand why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cautions that the holidays and end of the year are a dangerous time for substance use.

It is easy to understand why this is true. For many, family gatherings are stressful. It may bring up past traumas, such as broken relationships or painful memories of loved ones who may no longer be living. For the some, it may be a time where they encounter a lack of acceptance from friends and family. It is understandable, then, that many people choose to cope with these anxiety-inducing factors by self-medicating with alcohol or other substances that are usually readily available at holiday gatherings.

You don’t need a mental health expert to tell you that substance use is not a good coping strategy. Instead, my holiday wish is that you consider some basic lifestyle changes to help you maintain a positive outlook, despite holiday and COVID anxieties.

  • Make a Plan to be Merry: This year’s holiday season will be different. Even if your family will find a way to gather in a socially distanced way, many of your traditions, such as religious services or festive events, will probably be cancelled. So be proactive and create a plan that makes the best of these new realities. Be flexible and have gratitude for every special moment that you can experience, rather than focusing on the things you can’t
  • You don’t have to wait until the New Year to resolve to be healthy. Start today by eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting enough sleep, limiting substance use and taking all of your medications as prescribed. The first step to a healthy mind is a healthy body.
  • Sharpen the tools in your mental health toolbox. There are several relaxation practices and techniques that you can learn to actively improve your mental wellness. These include meditation, mindfulness, yoga and other reflective exercises. Consider adding these to your self-care routine. A quick online search or meeting with a mental health professional can provide you with resources to learn these powerful yet simple practices.
  • Engage with others. Isolation and depression often go hand-in-hand: isolation leads to depression, which leads to more isolation. Stop the cycle and reach out to engage with others in whatever way is safe given the current guidelines regarding the pandemic. Even a phone call or virtual meeting packs great benefits for your overall wellness. When you feel connected, heard, and understood, it unleashes positivity that can be the difference between sinking into depression and looking outside yourself and helping others avoid the cycle of depression.
  • Replace known stressors with positive influences. It has been said that the best self-care is to create a lifestyle for yourself that you don’t regularly need to “escape” from. This, admittedly, is easier said than done. But be proactive about controlling negative influences that are within your ability to change. For example, consider limiting how much social media and news you consume and replace this time with something more positive, like reading an inspirational book or spending time outside.
  • Seek help. Answer this question honestly: how are you doing? If your existing daily struggles, compounded by the stress of the pandemic and now the holiday season have become too much to manage on your own, that is understandable. We all need a little extra help right now! Or maybe even a lot of extra help. There are medical and mental health professionals who are trained to address your specific needs and create a plan to help you get back on the path toward wellness. Most importantly, if you are in active crisis or have considered harming yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit Sheppard Pratt’s Crisis Walk-in Center, either in person or virtually. For more information, visit https://www.sheppardpratt.org/care-finder/virtual-crisis-walk-in-clinic/.

This holiday season will be different. That’s a given. But “different” could be an opportunity to infuse some creativity into your usual holiday plans. It opens up some space to try some new traditions. And most importantly, the holiday season provides an opportunity and reminder to us all to reach out and care for each other. It may just be “the most wonderful time of the year,” after all.

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