Holiday music, decorations and commercials say it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of year. But not everyone experiences the holidays as merry and bright.
For many people dealing with depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, the holidays can be a difficult time. It can also heighten feelings of grief or isolation.
And it all comes after a challenging two years of the coronavirus pandemic — marked by prolonged uncertainty and loss of many different kinds — and amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“Whether we are approaching the holidays with a feeling of good stress, or we are approaching the holidays with a feeling of overwhelming stress, we are approaching this round of holidays feeling burnt out and that just makes it a lot more difficult,” said Michele Nealon, president of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Nealon mentioned financial issues, and pressure related to cooking and getting everything done in time can be stressful. The pressure can also worsen mental health conditions people may already have.
“About 64% of people who are living their lives with a mental health problem start feeling even more stress at this time of year, and that impacts our physical self. It can raise depression, it can raise anxiety and also using a little too much alcohol and drug misuse,” Nealon said.
Kavita Khara, a therapist at Chicago Counseling Services, says she recommends clients focus on the basics during the holidays, getting enough sleep, not taking in too much caffeine, eating well and moving their body.
“A lot of that structure and routine falls to the side during the holiday season because you’re trying to make sure you’re keeping up with wrapping gifts and making sure you are finishing up your last minute shopping … and I think that can get incredibly stressful,” Khara said.
An added layer of stress for some this year is feeling like they need to make up for holidays missed during the pandemic, Khara said.
How to Deal with Grief During the Holidays
The holidays can often serve as a reminder of family members and friends who have died. Nealon says amid the pandemic, there is even more grief this year.
“There are a lot of empty chairs around holiday tables this year,” Nealon said. “Over 800,000 people have lost their lives, and that’s likely an understatement. So that gives you an idea of just how many family and friends are going to miss a loved one, and in many cases loved ones around the table.”
Nealon said it’s important for people to ask for what they need from their family members, and for family members of people who are grieving to ask them what they need.
“We all grieve individually, there’s no one-size-fits-all for grieving. So I recommend that we tell others how they can support us this year. Don’t show up to a family gathering believing that you have to put on a happy face,” Nealon said.
Khara agrees, saying people should do what is best for them. For instance, she told clients who are grieving to make their loved one’s favorite dish to honor them at the table.
“If you are someone that really enjoys dressing up and putting on a full face of makeup and looking fabulous, please do that,” Khara said. “If you are somebody that wants to sit in sweatpants eating cookie dough with the people who feel safest to you, that’s OK. I think it’s being in tune with what you need and want to do and celebrating the holidays in a way that feels good for you.”
How to Access Additional Mental Health Resources
If you or someone you know might be in need of support or help finding resources, you can call the National Alliance on Mental Health Chicago 24/7 hotline at 833-626-4244, or text NAMI to 741741.
If you or someone you know are in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.