Health Care & Insurance  November 30, 2020

Holidays, COVID affect mental health

By Lucas High

lhigh@bizwest.com

For many people, and particularly for those of us predisposed to mental health struggles, the holiday season can trigger feelings of depression and anxiety, grief and loneliness. When the already stressful season is layered atop an eight-month global pandemic and economic slowdown, the result is a period that could be as emotionally challenging as any in recent memory.

“During the holiday season, people feel like their mental health [struggles are] exaggerated,” Mental Health Colorado CEO Vincent Atchity said. “It’s this clash between how people think they’re supposed to be feeling and how they’re actually feeling. Even the healthiest of us have that to some degree.”

Dr. Joshua Garfein with Boulder Community Health noted that this year’s mental-health triggers go beyond the pandemic and the holidays to include the wildfires in parts of Northern Colorado and the Boulder Valley, as well as the contentious political climate.

“This year is basically unparalleled,” he said.

Seasonal stressors, according to UCHealth therapist and social worker Rachel Slick, can include financial pressure, shorter days, travel and thoughts of loved ones lost during the year.

This stress doesn’t just manifest itself in feelings of sadness or worry. There are physical manifestations as well: tension headaches, muscle spasms, gastrointestinal symptoms and acne to name a few.

“All these things are very connected,” Slick said.

The typical holiday season anxiety is compounded exponentially by the fact that we’re all stuck inside and many of us are unable to celebrate with family and friends.

“Historically and culturally, there’s a reason why so many holidays and celebrations are in the winter,” Atchity said. “The days are shorter, it’s darker and colder, and humans have always created their own warmth by getting together. To be deprived of that natural comfort is going to be really hard for a lot of people.”

It’s not just that people are forced to remain in solitude in an effort to beat back the spread of the virus, it’s also that no one has any idea when we’ll be able to be together again.

“Chronic uncertainty can pose significant threats to mental stability and health and trigger existing vulnerabilities that many may already have,” University of Colorado psychology professor June Gruber said in an email.

“Accepting our emotions as they are” and not beating yourself up about the way you feel during this unprecedented holiday season is a key coping strategy, she said.

“Our emotions guide us through the world and give us information about events and circumstances. Feeling upset, lonely and frustrated is a normative response to the uncertain world we are in. Don’t expect or feel distressed if you are not overjoyous. Know your emotions are keeping you in connection with this unusual world.”

Participating in physical activity, whether that’s traditional exercise or something as low-contact as knitting, is a helpful way to combat seasonal or virus-related stress.

“Taking care of the body helps with the brain, too,” Slick said.

Atchity recommends developing a self-care routine that involves prolonged breaks from social media and television.

A far less effective coping strategy is increased reliance on substances, experts say.

“Be cautious of overeating and consuming too much alcohol,” Slick said.”Be aware of what you’re putting in your body and how it can affect your mood.”

Regardless of whether — or to what degree — mental health issues are a challenge for you during the holidays, experts warned against taking our collective eye off the ball: stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“The most regrettable outcome from a public health perspective isn’t necessarily the mental health aspect,” Atchity said “It’s the continuing spiking of cases through the holiday season as people continue to gather and infect each other.”

For 24-hour mental health assistance, visit coloradocrisisservices.org or call 844-493-8255.

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