Vancouver, BC – The year 2020 has been a year like no other, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue. And this year, the usual stress and anxiety many of us experience during festive season will be made all the more challenging due to the pandemic. Restrictions on holiday gatherings and travel, although for the greater good, will prevent us from participating in holiday traditions and from doing many of the things we enjoy. Spending time with the people who give our lives meaning may not be possible, or look very different, this year.
”All of this is hitting at a time when people are already anxious, hopeless and fearful that things are going to get worse,” says Jonny Morris, CEO of the BC Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). “There’s no doubt about it: experiencing a chronic crisis is exhausting and leads to wear and tear on our mental, physical, social, and financial health.”
New data released this month by CMHA in partnership with UBC researchers highlighted that the second wave of the pandemic has intensified feelings of stress and anxiety, causing alarming levels of despair, suicidal thoughts and hopelessness in the Canadian population. In fact, 42% of British Columbians say their mental health has deteriorated since March. More than a third of British Columbians (36%) are worried about finances, 55% say that they are worried about a loved one or family member dying and only 22% are feeling hopeful.
So, what can we do to get through this very different holiday season and come out the other side feeling strong?
CMHA BC has put together a list of tips to help you.
1. Connect with your loved ones – virtually
First up, the big one! Don’t resign yourself to spending the holidays alone and isolated. Social isolation has long been known as a key trigger for mental and physical health problems but apart doesn’t have to mean alone.
Thanks to technology, we do not have to able to be in the same house, or even country, as our loved ones to still spend time with them.
We are social beings and connection is intuitive. This year find new creative ways to connect using the tools you have at your disposal. Cook the same meal over video chat on your tablet or play online video games, or card games, with friends and family.
For seniors living alone who are feeling isolated United Way’s Safe Seniors, Strong Communities program matches people needing support with non-medical essentials, to volunteers in their community who are willing to help. This can range from grocery shopping and prescription pick up to phone/virtual visits.
For relatives who aren’t as tech savvy, don’t underestimate the power of good old-fashioned phone calls throughout the holidays which will really help them feel connected and less alone. Consider going old-school and writing a series of letters which they can open each day to keep them engaged and included in the spirit of the season.
2. Take care of your physical health
There is no mental health without physical health. So don’t let your healthy habits slip over the holiday period. Eating a healthy diet, one that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and limits highly processed foods, can help lift mood and your ability to respond to stress.
Moderation is key when it comes to treats. A tip: having a healthy snack before holiday meals can help you not go overboard on sweets or other rich foods.
Try to maintain a semblance of your normal routine and don’t forget to include regular physical activity. Exercise can reduce your stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety. And, it helps you sleep.
The importance of getting enough sleep also cannot be underestimated. Sleep is closely connected to mental and emotional health as it helps the brain’s processing of emotional information. Poor sleep can be a contributing factor to worsening mental health problems. A few early nights never did anyone any harm.
3. If you can, change your perception of the situation
When our expectations have been changed so dramatically, it’s easy to reminisce on holidays gone by. We can forget that this is typically a stressful time of year, complete with travelling headaches, relatives we may not get along with, and a long list of tasks. This year, you get to take it easy in ways you weren’t able to before.
Try reframing this year’s festive season as an escape from the typical holiday stressors, come up with new traditions, or a time to focus on home and yourself. Gratitude journaling done weekly can also be an important way to look at the whole picture of your life. Remember, too, that you’re not alone in feeling frustrated, disappointed or grief-stricken. Most of us are struggling this time of year in various ways.
4. Relax your body and your mind
Relaxation is any process that lowers the impact of stress on your mind and body. Simple relaxation techniques can help you manage stress.
Relaxation means different things to different people. For some, a brisk walk in the fresh air or connecting with nature might help, for others a long soak in the tub or alone time listening to music or creating something could do the trick. Still others find that downloading a mindfulness or meditation app or watching online yoga videos can help them find some calm.
Pinpoint what works for you and make sure to take some “you” time each day. But be cautious if you’re someone who only uses substances or screen time to relax; try to find a couple of other ways to reduce stress.
5. Check in with your emotions
With everything going on in the world right now it is completely normal to be feeling a bit more emotional than usual. Take some time to take stock of your emotions – whether that is sadness, anxiety, fear or loneliness – and then begin to address them in whatever way is most productive for you, such as journaling, talking to a loved one, finding an online group, or just spending some quiet time alone thinking (that isn’t when you’re trying to fall asleep).
Recent research conducted by researchers in the US found that people who identified their emotions and took steps to process them reported lower stress levels than those who avoided identifying their emotions. Don’t try to push past or ignore them no matter how uncomfortable they may be.
We’ve all lost our sense of normalcy this year – many of us have lost a lot more than that. It’s okay to grieve that during this time.
6. Don’t overindulge
While escaping from the here and now may seem like a way to avoid feelings of anxiety and stress, it can have the reverse effect if we make unhealthy coping choices. Overspending, overdrinking or engaging in other unhealthy substance use can leave us feeling even worse that we did before. For many of us, this year the holidays will simply have to be a more modest affair than perhaps we have been accustomed to in the past. For some people the lockdown restrictions resulted in job losses or reduced hours.
Attempting to buy happiness rarely works – especially when you are faced with post-holiday credit card bills you can’t pay. Before splashing out on expensive gifts and more food than you really need, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. This year it really is the thought that counts so try a family gift exchange instead of individual presents or agree to exchange handmade gifts instead.
Similarly, indulging in a few alcoholic beverages might help us lift our mood and reduce anxiety in the short-term, but it will not help in the long run, worsening sleep, thinking, mood and anxiety.
7. Avoid “Doomscrolling”
This year has been a year of constant “doomscrolling,” endlessly scrolling news apps and social media and soaking up bad news. Keeping informed is a good thing but too much contributes to feelings of depression, despair and anxiety.
Limit yourself to getting your news from one or two reputable sources and set a timer so you only spend 10 to 15 minutes at a time and perhaps only check in on the news once a day, not before bed. (Pro tip: skip the comments!). Also, try and balance the positive with the negative and make a point to seek out and read the less negative stories.
8. Learn new skills to build resilience
If you’re feeling anxious or depressed you may really benefit from learning some new skills to help you build resilience.
CMHA BC has two free and effective programs based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which have been proven to help people feel better and more able to navigate life’s challenges.
CMHA’s BounceBack® is a free skill-building program designed to help adults and youth, ages 15 and over, manage low mood, mild to moderate depression and anxiety, stress or worry. The program is delivered over the phone with an individual coach and through online videos, and participants have access to tools that will help manage low mood, stress, and anxiety. BounceBack® is free and available online and over the phone without the need for a doctor’s referral. Just go to www.bouncebackbc.ca to get started. The program can be accessed immediately and is available in English, French, Mandarin, Cantonese and Punjabi.
Living Life to the Full is a fun and interactive group course designed to help people deal with life challenges. Certified facilitators teach participants techniques to respond in a helpful ways to challenging and unexpected events and experiences. Living Life to the Full is suitable for people of all ages – from youth to older adults – and is delivered across 8 weekly sessions via videoconferencing with course materials are available in e-book format at no cost. For more information and to find an upcoming Living Life to the Full course go to www.livinglifetothefull.ca
If you are feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your mental health you can find more information on CMHA BC’s resources and programs at https://bc.cmha.ca/covid-19
External Relations Specialist, CMHA BC Division