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Protecting Your Mental Health During the (Pandemic) Holiday Season

Even if you enjoy the holidays, they can still be stressful and can take a toll on your mental health. But, this year in particular will be trying. Many of us have made the difficult choice to cancel travel plans and gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That means not partaking in traditions or spending time with loved ones.

While the holidays will definitely look and feel different this year, there are still some ways that you can celebrate while still looking after your mental health.

Engage in mindfulness activities.

A simple and effective way to reduce stress and anxiety is through deep breathing and mindfulness activities.

"[Mindfulness] allows us to bring a healthy discernment into our everyday experience and identify the elements of our thought, speech, and behavior that lead to suffering and those that lead to freedom," meditation instructor Kirat Randhawa told Good Housekeeping. "Over time we can strengthen the causes for freedom and diminish the causes of suffering. Once we recognize the necessary conditions for happiness, mindfulness allows us to meet the experience with an embodied presence, thereby truly enjoying the unfolding of each moment."

These activities can be done from anywhere and only take a couple of minutes -- your kids can also join in. Over time, you’ll be able to stop ruminating about the past or worrying over the future.

"Mindfulness is the practice of being at ease with what is," she adds. "The more you practice, the easier it gets to be more accepting of whatever feelings are present."

So, if you overwhelmed this holiday season, you might want to try activities like:

  • The Name Game. Look around you and name three things you can hear, then two things you can see, and one sensation that you feel.

  • Deep breathing exercises. "Taking long, deep breaths when feeling cluttered, distracted, or ungrounded begins to relax the nervous system and draws the attention to the present moment, which in turn promotes a feeling of intimacy with the body, with the earth, and with the natural spaciousness that is inherent in each moment," says Randhawa.

  • The Wiggle and Freeze Game. A perfect game if you have children, or just want to be silly. Simply bounce around until someone shouts “freeze.”

  • Candle Study Exercise. This is a type of meditation where you lit a candle and watch the flame.

  • Gratitude List Exercise. "Gratitude lists are the quickest way to ground yourself in difficult times because they help you focus on what is working," says Shirin Eskandani, mindset coach and founder of Wholehearted Coaching. "The trick, though, is to get specific. So instead of just writing down 'I am grateful for family,' try: 'I am grateful for the zoom call I had with my parents and sister last night.'"

Connect virtually with loved ones.

The holidays will be different this year. And, adjusting to that change is going to be difficult -- especially if you aren’t able to enjoy annual traditions this holiday season.

While it’s not going to be precisely the same, find creative and meaningful ways to still connect with friends and family this year. Obvious suggestions would be writing cards or having a meal together over FaceTime or Zoom -- Zoom is actually removing time limits on Thanksgiving.

You could also use this technology to bake cookies together or have a virtual gift-exchange. You could also schedule a virtual game or holiday movie night. And, you can always send a text or pick-up the phone and check-in on your loved one as well.

Go ahead and decorate.

Recent research has found that putting up decorations early can brighten our mood. One reason for this is that when you introduce a new sensory element, such as lights, it boosts our mental health and mood.

"We habituate ... you kind of get used to any setting you are in ... but when we introduce new things into our environment it stimulates our senses, and our senses are, of course, the wiring to our entire physiological system,” explains psychologist, author, and professor at Adelphi University Deborah Serani to CNN. “So when we introduce color, light, sound -- the sound of music around the holiday time ... taste -- it makes us feel good.”

Additionally, nostalgia can also improve your mood because it reminds you of your positive thoughts and memories. It may also help you develop an optimistic view of the future.

"Having a future orientation is actually really important to mental health, well-being, and moral. To the extent that we are using the holidays ... as an anchor, of something to look forward to, something to plan towards ... I think can be really helpful," said psychologist Vaile Wright.

"Our emotions make judging time pretty inaccurate. When we are really anxious it feels like time slows down, but when we are excited it feels like time speeds up, so to the extent that it could also make it feel like the next month and a half go by faster, I think people are looking forward to that."

Bonus points if you have outdoor decorations since that gives you the opportunity to spend time outside. Research has found time and time again that being outside benefits your mental health.

Admit that it’s ok to not be ok.

If you’re lonely, disappointed, and even a little angry that’s alright. It’s normal to have these feelings -- particularly in a year like 2020. Don’t suppress these feelings. Instead, express them in a healthy way by taking the following steps:

  • Give yourself a minute to take a deep breath and connect with your feelings.

  • Identify your emotion.

  • Acknowledge what you’re feeling and give yourself permission to express it.

  • Find a healthy outlet, such as writing, talking to friends, or physical activity.

  • Give yourself credit for addressing your feelings and taking action.

Reach out for help.

Finally, if you’re really struggling this holiday season, please reach out for help. Whether if it’s through teletherapy or scheduling an appointment with a mental health professional, there’s nothing wrong with seeking professional help. Besides having someone to talk to, they can assist you with coping mechanisms.

If it’s an emergency, however, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 24/7 at 1.800.273.8255.

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