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How to manage holiday stress and depression in the time of COVID-19

Posted on Dec. 11, 2020 ( comments)
Even if in-person contact isn't always possible, staying connected is still important for your wellbeing, especially this time of year.

After a year like no other, we’re now in the midst of a holiday season like no other. The dazzling holiday lights many neighborhoods put up are still there. But those sweet moments of children meeting Santa now include a plexiglass barrier (if Santa is even visiting with children where you live) and the usual parties and family gatherings will be mostly virtual, if they happen at all.

In a season that always comes with a fair share of stress and anxiety, this year is, for many of us, just a bit extra. We may find we miss those crowded shopping malls as we anxiously track present deliveries. And that doesn’t even touch on the stress of job loss, illness or the loss of loved ones that this year has brought to too many.

We talked to the Mobile Outreach Crisis Team at MultiCare Behavioral Health about maintaining your mental health during a particularly difficult time of a particularly difficult year. Silvia Riley is the manager of Crisis Services for MultiCare Behavioral Health Services. 

Why are the holidays normally such a stressful time of year?

Silvia Riley: The holidays can bring a wealth of emotions for anybody, not just those with mental health diagnoses. It’s a time of year that puts a lot of stress on people, and the stress can turn into anxiety. Traditions may remind us of family and maybe losses we’ve had in the past, and that can turn into depression and grief.

If you’re already experiencing some difficult emotions, the holidays can exacerbate them, or make you want to suppress them, which can be dangerous. When you keep your feelings inside, they build up. In our field, we encourage people to talk about their feelings — which doesn’t come easy for everyone, we know. But we don’t necessarily mean you have to share the details. You can just share that you’re struggling, you’re feeling down, you’re worried. Reach out to a good friend, your spouse or partner, a parent or other family member, a pastor — whoever you’re most comfortable with.

Avoid isolating yourself, especially during this time of year. That might just mean phone calls or video chats this year, but those can help maintain connection.

It’s important that if you feel like you’re starting to lose control of your emotions and/or they’re affecting your daily activities, it may be time to seek professional help.

Pierce County Health Crisis Line: 800-576-7764
Crisis Clinic of King County: 866-427-4747
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: 741741

Why is this year so much worse for many?

Besides the pandemic there’s a lot that has happened this year. We had elections and that brought a lot of stress and a lot of input from the media that raised concern. We also experienced a lot of civic unrest and a lot of division. For me, 2020 was a year with a lot to absorb, a lot to adapt to, a lot to digest, much of which we were not quite prepared for.

Normally this time of year can bring on anxiety and depression. I think this year has also brought a lot of fear. Fear of the unknown, personal impacts, economic impacts if you lost your job, and a lot of isolation. Isolation is not a new thing. It may be normal to isolate, especially if the holidays are stressful for you. But nine to 10 months of this really got to people. If you experienced a loss like a death or divorce, or the anniversary of a loss, you had a much longer time to hold onto those emotions.

What are some ways to cope with this year’s unique stresses?

We are all fatigued, and some people are annoyed and some people are just exhausted. Three things will help everyone get through this: Respect, Tolerance and Patience.

It’s important to respect that everybody’s experience is different. I’ve been coming to work every day. My life hasn’t changed that much. For me I would love a few hours of peace and quiet! We’ve all experienced different things. Some people have lost jobs, some people worked a lot of overtime. Some people have experienced sickness or the death of a loved one. Even with the election, some people’s candidates won and they may feel great about it, while other people’s candidates lost. 

Give each other grace and try to not be judgmental. That’s easier said than done, especially when it comes to mask wearing! Focus on thinking about “This is what I can control, and this is what I can’t.” It’s about our own reactions, owning your own feelings and keeping perspective. How others respond is out of our control.

Don’t judge that maybe your mom is throwing a party for 20 people. Assume that people have good intentions when they want you to come over and spend time with them. But make your own decisions. We of course want everybody to follow the CDC’s guidelines and the governor’s guidelines. But when it comes to family or friends, you maybe have to agree to disagree.

And finally, patience. For some people it comes more naturally but for most of us it really takes practice. And you may think “After 10 months, I should be really good at this!” That’s led to fatigue. 

But look at the big picture. Spring always comes. Vaccines are on the way. The holidays always pass.

Part of the stress is very particular to the holidays. How do we cope with the loss of traditions?

Focus on the things we are grateful for. Think about how we can make new memories this year. I have a group of girlfriends who meet for a monthly breakfast and we normally take a picture each month. This year we’ve done Zoom pictures. Instead of buying each other gifts, we gave ourselves gifts and opened them in front of each other in our virtual gathering.

It always feels good when you’re supporting someone else and there are still opportunities to do that. When we focus on what we can’t do or what we don’t have this year, it’s not going to feel great. But when you focus on what you can do and how you can help, research shows when you give to others you get more in return. And you can help in ways that don’t cost money. Small acts of kindness can make you feel better. If you have an elderly neighbor, check in on them. Don’t be overwhelming but say, “Can I bring you food, I’m going to the grocery store, can I get you something?”

Instead of waiting for people to reach out, you reach out. Look to see if there’s a community organization that can use some volunteers. I can promise there is somebody needing help distributing food or wrapping presents where you can still be safe.

Whether it’s volunteering, donating, making it a point to support local businesses, these are all ideas of things we can do that ultimately make us feel better and maybe feel a bit more of the holiday spirit.

Also turn off the news sometimes. It’s important to be educated, but be sure to turn to resources that you trust. Balance that with doing activities that you enjoy. Go for a walk, watch a comedy. Look for balance. Focus more on today. We tend to be thinking about tomorrow, the next day, the next month. That can get overwhelming.

Download our printable coping cards

What are warning signs to know that you or someone you care about needs professional help?

Isolation can be a good thing for some people, but if it’s been a problem or has led to crises or difficult times in the past, this is a time to reach out to somebody that you trust, a friend, a neighbor or a sponsor. Know that some people might not know you might be struggling alone because isolation is not unusual this year.

Be open to feedback. That’s a hard thing to do. Sometimes you may think you know what’s best for you. But if your partner says you’re drinking every day or this is the third day you’re calling in sick, realize that sometimes we don’t see how our behavior has changed. Listen to people you trust, your partner, your counselor, your pastor, your mother….

Feeling anxious or depressed for a few days is absolutely OK. But when it stretches on and begins impacting your daily life and health, it’s time to get help. If you’re not eating or sleeping, can’t get up and work, can’t get up and shower, you need to ask for help. That may be the greatest gift you give yourself.

And if you have loved ones who have struggled with mental health issues, check in on them. Let them know you’re there for them and want to make sure they’re OK. Reassure them without being prescriptive, because no one wants to be told “You should go to a therapist,” for example. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending a text with care and concern or offering to bring dinner. In extreme cases, you can always call the National Suicide Hotline or local crisis line for advice for a loved one you’re worried about.
Contact MultiCare Behavioral Health Services, make an appointment or learn more.

Pierce County Health Crisis Line: 800-576-7764
Crisis Clinic of King County: 866-427-4747
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: 741741

This article is part of our ongoing "Safe(r) Holidays" series. View the full series at our COVID-19 Resource Center.

About The Author

Cheryl Reid-Simons
Cheryl Reid-Simons is a freelance writer and serial community volunteer. In her spare time, she drives a private activities shuttle for her twin sons, healthy graduates of the Tacoma General NICU and interim care nursery. More stories by this author
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