By Dave Celone
Back in 1851, Herman Melville recognized looming holiday-season depression in the very first chapter of “Moby Dick.” Then, he wrote about Ishmael who quipped, “whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul... I account it high time to take to the sea as soon as I can.” Sour moods have been with us for a long time, yet, thanks to advances in behavioral health research and care, we’ve learned a few things about how to deal with stress and depression to improve our mental health along the way.
Not only did Melville offer up some symptoms of depression, he also offered a very real solution we now know to be true. That is, find something you like to do and do it – and with frequency, too.
According to mental health experts, holiday depression is real, and there are ways to cope with it. One thing these experts could not have foreseen is the reality of COVID-19 and its impact on our psychological state of mind during the 2020 holiday season. As a result of the pandemic, psychological stressors are amplified due to the isolation we’re already feeling. We may also be overwhelmed with the financial impact the pandemic has had on us, and the many related stresses brought about by changes in our schedules and the constant need to think about how to keep ourselves and our families safe from the coronavirus. It’s a lot of work to deal with all these things, and to harness and practice happiness can seem truly challenging.
In the past, we knew certain triggers could make us feel depressed, such as trying to be the perfect host or attending the myriad holiday events available to us. Plus overdoing it on shopping, cooking, and visiting family and friends. It could quickly get to be too much, making us feel exhausted and sad.
But this year, we might be faced with an opposite set of stressors. In the past, there may have been too much to do. This year, there may not be enough to do. We might not be able to see our family or friends due to the spike in COVID-19 cases and the need to remain in quarantine. We might not feel socially connected by getting out and shopping with friends. Even a trip to the supermarket might not bring satisfaction if you’re only cooking for yourself or a few people instead of the big meals you’ve prepared in past years. The sense of social isolation can lead to depression. So, we have to find new approaches to cope.
Here are some ideas that might make you feel less anxious or depressed during the 2020 holiday season:
— Find something you like to do and do it. Make it a routine. Like Ishmael who knew he needed to “take to the sea” to improve his mood, find the activities that you most enjoy and work them into your schedule. Try meditation for 15 minutes each day. Or getting out for a walk for 30 minutes five days a week. Or give your best friend a call and set up a time to talk each week. Read, nap, exercise, listen to music, take a hot bath, putter in the workshop – whatever it is that helps you relax, make it a routine and work it into your schedule.
— Get outside. Exposure to daylight will help boost your mood. Take a daily walk and breathe in some fresh air.
— Sleep! Strive to get eight hours of sleep a night. There’s a link between sleep loss and depression. You might even think about getting yourself a new pillow, just to help you remember how important it is to rest and relax during the holidays.
— Exercise. Moving your body can help improve your mood. If you can get out and walk or hike with a friend or family member, or your favorite pet, so much the better. The exercise and the socializing will brighten your mood. Just keep in mind safe distancing and mask-wearing when you’re with another person, or as others pass by on your walking or running route.
— Hydrate. Be sure to drink plenty of water during the day. Water has natural calming properties, so drinking enough water is an important step in managing anxiety.
— Reach out. If you feel lonely or sad, seek out community. This year will look different, but a phone call, a text, or a video chat can do wonders for your mental health.
— Share. If you can’t get together with your relatives due to distance or quarantine reasons, or physical disabilities or financial hardships prevent you from seeing them, share some photos/images of past times you’ve spent together. Getting on a video chat can also be a nice way to bring groups of people together. Try to celebrate the fact that you’re all in touch with one another – even if it’s not being in the same room together. Try sharing a recipe that everyone can cook in their own kitchens, then eat it “together” while you’re all on a video call!
Yes, the 2020 holidays will be different this year. And the stressors of the past might be very different than the stressors of the present. But with some planning and thinking about how to care for yourself, keeping in touch with family and friends using phone and video, and making sure you exercise and find time to enjoy those little things that make you happy, you’ll get through these COVID-19 holidays in better health and an improved mood.
If despite your best efforts you find yourself persistently sad or anxious, unable to sleep, hopeless, or not able to do routine chores, please talk with a doctor or mental health professional. There are many resources, just one of which is West Central Behavioral Health if you live in the Upper Valley or Sullivan County region of New Hampshire/Vermont. Visit wcbh.org for more information on the services we offer, to make an appointment, or to contact our emergency crisis line. Around the State of NH, there are 10 behavioral health centers, each of which has an emergency crisis line that’s available 24/7. One easy way to connect with your local center is by looking online at: nhcbha.org, the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association website. In Vermont, visit the Department of Mental Health website at mentalhealth.vermont.gov to find the designated mental health agency for your region.
From all of us at West Central Behavioral Health, we hope you have a safe and happy holiday season. There are many ways to keep mentally fit during this time. Finding what brings you joy and building it into your daily routine is the first step to overcoming holiday and COVID-19 stressors to keep anxiety and depression at bay. Like Ishmael in “Moby Dick,” figure out what buoys you up and makes you smile, then do it!
Dave Celone is director of development & community relations at West Central Behavioral Health, which has offices in Claremont, Lebanon, and Newport, N.H. Dave reminds us all to wear masks and wash our hands often as two important ways to stay safe during this pandemic. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are in crisis, West Central’s 24/7 emergency services number is 1-800-564-2578.