Home—Alone—for the Holidays

Those who struggle during the holiday season may have it even worse this year thanks to COVID-19

By: Alexandra Becker

The holiday season may be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but for many, it can also be a stressful, lonely, and downright depressing few months. This year, as we near the end of 2020 and continue to find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, it’s likely that for a large portion of the population, the months of November and December may lack their typical comfort and joy. And for those who already struggle, this year could feel unbearable.

Dr. Mariam Wahby, an education specialist with Behavioral Health Services at Memorial Hermann Health System, explained that people tend to struggle this time of year for a host of reasons. In some cases, people have a hard time being around their family, and even if that isn’t the case, traveling to see loved ones can be stressful in and of itself. For those individuals, choosing to stay home and social distance this year may serve as a relief, although anxiety about COVID-19 itself may still linger.

For others, the holidays feel isolating and can serve as a stark reminder of difficult realities, including loneliness or a yearning for family or friends who have passed away. This year will likely be especially hard for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

“In many cases, people are thinking about loss or even the number of Christmases they have left with certain family members—that the pandemic is robbing them of their last years with a grandparent or an elderly parent,” Wahby said. “Now they’re not able to travel to them, and even if they live in the same area, precautions may prevent them from being together.”

Even more, people everywhere are suffering from pandemic fatigue, and most feel exhausted from social distancing and self-isolation measures.

“Now we have flu season on top of the pandemic,” Wahby said. “Another issue is the unpredictability of it and how this has really disrupted routines. We’ve become more familiar with routines involving quarantine and isolation and remote operations, but what we haven’t become familiar with is not knowing what’s coming in the future. People don’t know what next month is going to be like, or if they can make plans for next summer. I think the uncertainty of it all really exacerbates that fatigue and feeling overwhelmed.”

Wahby noted that come January, things may not look much different than they do now, which can feel depressing in and of itself.

“A new year always brings that sense of renewal and resolutions. We’re wired like that—we’re always waiting for Monday to start eating better, we’re always waiting for the New Year to make these big changes in our lives—but now we don’t know when the next reset will be,” Wahby said. “The expectations of this New Year could be really disappointing.”

So what can someone do to help a loved one who may be struggling, or even yourself?

Wahby recommended addressing concerns immediately to prevent unwelcome feelings from becoming worse.  

“Preventative care is the most effective and efficient way to handle things,” she explained. “So if you can be proactive and you can recognize that you typically do feel more down around the holidays or you do tend to get really stressed and overwhelmed, this is going to be added onto a mountain you’ve already been carrying, so prepare yourself for that.”

Wahby said her first recommendation is to always seek out a therapist who can help people work through issues or concerns, especially if they notice that their feelings are interfering with their ability to function in their day-to-day life. She also suggested asking friends and family members if they notice any changes in your disposition, which can provide additional insight.

“Other people will notice patterns in you that you often don’t recognize yourself—you’re too close to it,” she said.

Wahby acknowledged, however, that therapy may not always be accessible for everyone.

“I think another option for someone who has a friend or loved one who is feeling down but not struggling with serious mental health symptoms is to come up with a set schedule to check in on that person,” Wahby said. “They might have less energy on the whole, and they’re certainly going to have less energy for maintaining relationships, so just a lot of no-pressure connection can be extremely helpful.”

Wahby suggested calling a loved one every Tuesday, for example, and talking about something trivial like a television show or nail polish.

“Just some really mindless conversation to check in and say, ‘How are you doing? Do you need any support right now? I’m just thinking about you and wanted to talk,’” she said.

She also noted that the shorter days that come with these next few months, in addition to the end of Daylight Saving Time, can also contribute to “winter blues” and feeling down. She recommended getting sunlight whenever possible, and for those who can’t, purchasing a natural light lamp, which has proven to be helpful with seasonal affective disorders.

“Driving to work in the dark and coming home in the dark can feel really defeating,” Wahby said. “It feels really silly, but these natural light lamps provide natural-looking sunlight and they are a really good way for your brain to get a little bit of that boost.”

Wahby also has a simple piece of advice for anyone who may already be feeling down or fears that the holiday blues are coming—a kind of self-care that isn’t always discussed.

“We picture self-care like a spa day where we don’t have our phones anywhere near us and we’ve got cucumbers on our eyes, but that’s just a really elaborate situation,” Wahby said.

Instead, she wants people to focus on self-talk as a self-care tool. It’s something everyone can do every day, and ultimately, it’s the one of the mind’s greatest forms of preventative medicine.

“Notice throughout the day—do I critique myself? Am I impatient with myself? Do I even pay attention to myself?” Wahby said. “Observe the things that you naturally do and then adjust them as needed. In other words, speak to yourself the way you would speak to someone else—be kind, maybe even add some compliments.”

One of her favorite recommendations, she said, usually has people laughing: When you brush your teeth in the morning, look at yourself and smile.

She said most people scoff at that, but her comeback is hard to ignore.

“It may feel ridiculous, but if it feels ridiculous to smile at yourself or say something nice to yourself, you should keep that as a goal until it doesn’t.”

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