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Holiday Mental Health Tips To Cap A Stressful Year

Andrew Neel via Pexels

2020 has been a stressful year. The election, wildfires, a pandemic, and now… the holidays. JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with Sean Connolly, an older adult behavioral health specialist with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments about how to maintain your mental health in spite of everything this season.

Sean Connolly: When it comes to kind of the stress of the holidays, don't put too many expectations on yourself. Realize that it's okay to do the bare minimum at this point. I saw a video online that was talking about how horrible things are, ‘But at least today I put on pants.’ I think that's kind of a good lens to look at things from at the moment. You know, just put on pants today and that's good enough.

Erik Neumann: This could be a very scary and sad Christmas because of the increasing infections that are happening including COVID infections from Thanksgiving. So, we're at this time when people probably want connection the most, but it's also the time that they should really isolate for their own good. What advice do you have for people who are feeling anxious right now?

SC: There's lots of things that people can do to kind of stave off the holiday blues. If you're seeing a therapist, keep doing that. Don't stop. A lot of people may turn to things like drugs and alcohol to try to mitigate some of their feelings, but it's really important to remember that a lot of drugs and alcohol are also depressants alcohol is a depressant. So even though you may be thinking ‘Oh, it's legal and I you know, I'm old enough to drink it’, it's still a depressant on your system. If you can be outside as much as possible, even if you have to be in your winter jacket just being in the sunlight can really help.

EN: You work primarily with older adults. I imagine this is a particularly unsettling time for them since they're at higher risk and need to isolate more and there's a very real threat to their health because of the pandemic.

SC: Yeah, absolutely. They may be worrying about their own health, they may be worrying about the health of their loved ones or their friends and that can be very isolating. Some things to think about when we think about isolation and loneliness is that somebody who is lonely has two times worse health outcomes in somebody who is obese. And somebody who's experiencing loneliness has the same health outcomes as somebody smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So, it can have a real impact on a person's health just by being lonely and not being connected to others.

EN: What can people do to manage that loneliness if, for example, they're having to spend the holidays by themselves or if they’re missing family members that they'd usually see?

SC: If they have the availability to do any sort of video conferencing or video chat, that's a great option. It's not a substitute for real human interaction. Our brains can tell the difference but it's much better than sitting alone. There are other resources like warm lines and friendship lines that people can call into. There was a study done about how we use technology and we think that we're being more connected – like if you're using Facebook you feel like you're connecting with people. It's called social media, right? But when they actually look at it, people found that they were more depressed and felt more isolated when they use those products. But there are tech products that people were using that they found more connection and it was things like Tinder, and those other websites that get you connected to other humans. I think it's really important to make sure that there is technology out there for us to be using and to use it wisely and make sure we're getting good quality connections.

EN: You're not necessarily advocating that everyone should start online dating right now?

SC: Yeah, not everybody should go download Bumble right now, but certainly using technology to its fullest potential, I think, is a good way to start.

EN: What do you do to maintain your mental health in difficult times?

SC: I take a lot of walks. Walking is kind of my Zen. There's lots of studies that show that exercise in general is great for your mental health and your physical health as well, but even the simple act of putting your feet down on the pavement in a specific rhythm can help regulate your heart rate and can help lower your stress hormones. For anybody else it may be engaging in their hobbies. It may be knitting or crocheting, it may be reading, it may be watching football. We spend a lot of time especially around the holidays investing in others. We’re looking around for gifts for other people we’re trying to think of what other people might like to eat. It's also really important to make sure that we're practicing good self-care habits and taking care of our own needs. That way we can really be better at caring for others.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.