Managing mental health during the holiday season
Improving mental well-being during the holidays
Although the holiday season is known as “the most wonderful time of the year,” we often forget that for some, it can be the most difficult. The holidays can increase daily stressors, from financial anxiety to higher work place demands. Those who have strained relationships with their family or are grieving a loss can also find themselves struggling during the holidays. Even the colder weather and short days can impact our mood with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Thankfully, there is an easy and effective way to improve mental health during this stressful time: practicing gratitude. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, it is the perfect time to take a pause amongst the flurry of guests and grocery lists. And in doing so, you can receive long-lasting mental health benefits.
“We all have a lot to be thankful for, but it is often overlooked,” said Chaplain Robin Colerick-Shinkle, Spiritual Care Manager at LMH Health. “If we practice gratitude and make it a conscious choice, it helps us become more aware of what we do have.”
The importance of practicing gratitude
In July of 2020, Colerick-Shinkle wrote an article about emotional and mental burnout and how practicing gratitude could help people survive the increased stress from the pandemic. In her research, she came across an incredible statistic reported by J. Bryan Sexton, PhD, Director of Duke Center for Healthcare Safety and Quality. Based on his work in clinical trials, studies and research, Sexton found that writing down three good things every day for 15 days can result in less burnout and exhaustion for up to an entire year.
Dr. Matthew Carey
After publishing her story, Colerick-Shinkle received numerous emails from LMH Health staff and colleagues, exclaiming how they were already seeing a big difference in their lives after trying the “Three Good Things” technique. Dr. Matthew Carey, psychiatrist with the Internal Medicine Group at LMH Health, has also “prescribed” this technique to his patients to improve mood and daily performance.
“By practicing gratitude, it consciously and subconsciously causes us to seek out the things that make us happy,” said Dr. Carey. “When a person has consistent negative thoughts, such as in the case of depression, changing our thought patterns to focus more on the positive can help improve our mood, and you can do that with daily affirmations of gratitude.”
Many people use a journal to record their daily gratitude, but you can also find apps to log gratitude, such as the “Three Good Things” app. Dr. Ashley Bloom, Primary Care physician at LMH Health, also recommends visiting PositivePsychology.com. The site has downloadable exercises that you can practice on your own and share with friends, family and colleagues.
“Gratitude is like a muscle: the more that you practice using it, the more you start using it without thinking,” said Dr. Bloom.
Strained family relationships
The holiday season often implies spending time with family and loved ones. However, this is not always a joyous occasion for some. With recent political and social upheaval, it can sometimes feel like you’re walking on egg shells around family members with differing opinions. Additionally, the pandemic can make physical gatherings extra stressful with the inherent risk of spreading the virus.
If Thanksgiving dinner conversations seem to be heading in the wrong direction, Dr. Carey recommends you politely and assertively suggest a different subject, such as what everyone is grateful for.
“Differences in social, political and religious beliefs are not going to be solved at the dining table. It is better just to avoid these topics and focus on something more positive,” said Dr. Carey.
Dr. Carey also mentioned that it is important to avoid drinking alcohol to cope with these situations, as it can negatively influence behavior and increase risk of alcohol-related accidents. If a situation does escalate, Dr. Carey says that you should casually separate yourself from the situation and return when things have cooled off.
Dr. Bloom states that it is ok to set a loving and kind boundary with family if there is potential physical or emotional risk when gathering for the holidays. It is important to be honest and put your mental and emotional well-being first. If you know someone who has strained familial relationships, Dr. Bloom suggests providing support and understanding, as this can be a challenging time.
Colerick-Shinkle recommends you spend your time with those who love and support you, whether they be friends, neighbors or coworkers. She said family doesn’t have to be biological: you can create your own family with those you love. Additionally, the holidays could be an opportunity for forgiveness or new beginnings.
“The holiday season can be a time to reach out and work towards healing a relationship with someone, or to celebrate who you already have in your life,” said Colerick-Shinkle.
Grief and the holidays
The holidays can be one of the most challenging times of year for those grieving the loss of a loved one. Their absence seems even greater during holiday rituals and traditions. Colerick-Shinkle urges us not to ignore our grief but to be honest and open with others.
“Just because they passed doesn’t mean they are gone from our hearts. It is ok to cry or talk about it,” said Colerick-Shinkle.
Joining a support group or just talking with friends can help one cope with their grief. Memorializing a loved one by baking their favorite cookies or making a donation in their honor can help keep them as part of your holiday traditions. You can also start new traditions to ease the ones that centered on a lost loved one.
Dr. Ashley Bloom
If you find yourself struggling this holiday season, reach out to your primary care doctor for additional support. There are many resources available, and your physician can help find what is best for you.
“Primary care is a great place to start. From grief to mental health, we encourage you to reach out and get the help you need,” said Dr. Bloom.
You can schedule an “Establish Care” appointment through any LMH clinic if you do not already have a primary care physician. At this appointment, your physician will learn about you and your health history to make a plan on how to best work forward. Visit https://www.lmh.org/providers/primary-care/ to find a physician near you.
Isabel Ashley is an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of Lawrence Journal-World’s health section.