While the holidays are generally considered to be a joyous time, the reality for many individuals is a heightening of emotions that is not always positive.
According to the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), expectations play a major role in why people become negatively affected mentally during the holidays. Oftentimes, the holiday expectations are set extraordinarily high, making them difficult and stressful to obtain. Additionally, when those expectations are not met it can take a large emotional toll on a person.
The holiday season can have a negative effect on mood and mental health. In many cases, the holidays can even contribute to a worsening of symptoms related to various mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Additionally, individuals with difficult family relationships and those who may have to spend holidays alone may have a hard time as well.
This post will discuss how and why the holidays affect mental health, how Covid-19 has contributed to the issue, and ways in which you can cope in a healthy manner during the holidays.
How the holidays affect mental health
The holidays are not always a positive experience. Maybe you are not close to family, grieving a loss, going through a stressful time at work or in life more broadly, and the holidays may be something you're dreading. In fact, the holidays tend to have the effect of heightening stress levels which can affect a person’s overall mood and mindset.
According to the CPA:
“People whose holiday experiences focus on relationships and activities with others report more happiness than those for who gift giving is a big focus. Think about what is more important – the perfect purchase, a turkey cooked on time or enjoying an activity with friends and family.”
Holiday stress is a term used to describe the heightening of negative or stressful emotions during the holiday season. This is sometimes referred to as the “holiday blues.”
According to a 2014 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with mental health conditions reported that the holidays worsen their overall mental wellbeing. Some of the conditions that are especially affected include:
- Anxiety Disorders
- General Depression, Seasonal Depression, and Manic Depression
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Ultimately, the holidays have the potential to cause mental and emotional stress for all sorts of people. This is especially true for holidays occurring alongside the pandemic, as more people than average will likely have to spend more time alone or separated from loved ones this holiday season.
The added impact of Covid-19
With the Covid-19 pandemic still taking its toll, holiday stress is likely to pose bigger impacts as it is paired with the mental health effects that have resulted from the pandemic and physical isolation. Moreover, holidays are likely to be significantly downsized due to ongoing travel restrictions within Canada and many other parts of the world.
Even without the added stress of the holidays, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the general public’s mental health. According to a July 2020 report published by CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), approximately 50 percent of Canadians have experienced a worsening of their mental health since the start of the pandemic.
Additionally, the CAMH report also found a spike in the percentage of Canadians increasing their alcohol consumption after the beginning of social distancing guidelines put in place to minimize the spread of the pandemic.
Self-Isolation during the holidays
There are many considerations and potential set-backs for holiday gatherings planned during the pandemic. Official government Covid-19 guidelines state that the safest way to enjoy the holidays is by celebrating only with the people who live in the same household as you.
This can lead to individuals being stuck in their home without being able to spend time with family or friends during the time of year where visiting loved ones is customary. There is also potential for the stress from worrying about the pandemic combined with the stress of not being able to be with family to combine and vastly heighten symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Combatting the double impact of holiday stress and pandemic anxiety will undoubtedly make the 2020 holiday season a particularly difficult one for many. As such, it will be critically important to find healthy ways to cope as well as finding ways to communicate with loved ones even if they are far away
Coping during the holidays
Despite the additional adversity that the holiday season can place on a person’s mental health and wellbeing, there are healthy ways to cope and minimize the negative effects. Understanding how to keep yourself grounded and mentally checked-in is key to overcoming holiday mental hardships.
Diet and alcohol
With the holidays often comes indulgence in a variety of food and drink. Being mindful of how your diet and exercise affect your mental health is important. One study found that sweets, which the holidays have many of, can majorly contribute to a decline in mental health.
Additionally, managing your alcohol consumption is crucially important. As mentioned earlier, CAMH found 25 percent of people aged 35 – 54 and 21 percent of people aged 18 -34 have increased their alcohol consumption since the start of the pandemic.
Managing how much alcohol you are ingesting can be difficult during stressful times. Finding other ways to combat the stress or boredom that can be solved with alcohol is key to maintain a healthy relationship with alcoholic beverages.
When you find yourself with the urge to drink to cope with stress, try a calming activity instead. Good examples of stress-relieving activities can include yoga, meditation, painting, baking, and exercise.
Exercise and activities
Keeping up an exercise routine is important for keeping your emotions level during the holidays. Additionally, finding activities to keep yourself occupied is an excellent way to keep your mind off things. Here are a few ideas for activities and exercise to work into your holiday schedule:
- Virtual yoga and fitness classes – With many gyms still being closed due to the pandemic, getting to a fitness class can be tricky. Luckily, there are many virtual classes to be found!
- Set a daily goal – Choose an exercise, such as squats or jumping jacks, and set a daily goal of doing a certain amount every day. This is a quick way to incorporate exercise into your day. Increase the goal every few days to make it more of a challenge!
- Go for walks in the cold – During the winter getting outside can be hard, but consider this: walking or exercising in the cold can actually burn more calories. So bundle up and embrace the cold!
- Host a virtual holiday party - While in-person get-togethers may be drastically limited, friends and loved ones can still stay in touch through group video calls where they watch a movie, play games, or just catch up.
- Make holiday cards – Now more than ever it is essential to spread love and holiday cheer. Making and sending holiday cards is a great way to express your appreciation for loved ones and also give you an activity to keep your mind in high spirits.
- Play Secret Santa – Reach out to friends and loved ones to see if they would be interested in playing Secret Santa. Set a reasonable budget for the group and get to online shopping or diy crafting!
Setting realistic expectations and acknowledge your feelings
As discussed before, expectations can play a major role in the reason people experience heightened stress levels during the holidays. By setting realistic expectations, a person can reduce the stress being put on themselves and on the occasion.
Being present with yourself is ultimately key, as hiding or suppressing your feelings will only lead to a further worsening of mental stress. By acknowledging what you are feeling, you will be better able to accept your own emotions and recognize that the negative ones will pass.
Negative emotions do not have to define your attitude towards the holidays. Treating yourself with patience and empathy is key to overcoming emotional lows and holiday stress.