Four Gifts for Your Mental Health This (Pandemic) Holiday Season


Dec 21, 2020

Young woman pausing to take a breath in nature, photo by swissmediavision/Getty Images

Photo by swissmediavision/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on USA Today on December 19, 2020.

“How are YOU doing?”

By far, this is the most common question that my patients in my psychotherapy practice have asked since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of my job as a clinical psychologist is to set any personal issues aside and focus on what my patients need during each session. But this has been an unusual and difficult time—even for your therapist.

Our mental health relies on our ability to cope with and adapt to difficult situations, but the length and the scope of the impact of the pandemic on our lives has been something most of us have never experienced. It's no surprise that it's impacting our mental health.

The holiday season—while typically hectic and potentially stressful—can also bring the comfort of annual traditions, time with family and friends, and a break from work. But holidays during a global pandemic? One more aspect of our lives that will be upended, disrupted. Here are four evidence-based strategies to support your mental health this holiday season.

Just Breathe

If you aim to focus on just one strategy during this holiday season, this is it. Take a deep breath (yes, right now—in and out, slowly). And another—paying attention to where you feel the breath in your body. And another—even more deeply and slowly, still paying attention. Just three deep breaths can be a very powerful pause in moments of stress, tension, anxiety, or sadness.

Extending our breathing to mindfulness meditation practice holds the promise of helping us to manage stress, anxiety, and depression.

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Extending our breathing to mindfulness meditation practice holds the promise of helping us to manage stress, anxiety, and depression. Free phone apps offer guided meditations to get you started. Try moving your breathing practice outside. Shirin-yoku (“forest bathing”), a practice developed in Japan which involves being in nature and mindfully paying attention to one's senses, has been shown to improve mental health symptoms.

Limit Alcohol

This holiday season will likely not have the typical festive parties, but we risk drinking too much during the holidays, nonetheless. A recent RAND study showed a sharp increase in drinking since the onset of the pandemic. Women increased heavy-drinking episodes (four or more drinks within a couple of hours) by 41 percent. Coping with the stresses of the holiday season may lead to increased drinking, too. Consider what you need in that moment when you might have a drink and meet that need in another way. Going for a walk can relieve stress more effectively than drinking. If you are going to drink, women should aim for one drink or less a day, and men, two or less. Track your drinking to see what you learn.

One Less Thing

Know that if you do one less thing (or several), that you are not a failure—you are adapting.

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The holidays can be dominated by expectations that we have of ourselves and all the things that we need to get done. What is your “one less thing?” What is one aspect of your life that you could not do—even for just a little while? This could be related to work or home life. Perhaps you want to skip putting up holiday lights outside or sending holiday cards. Noticing unhelpful expectations and shifting to more balanced, helpful thinking is a core component of cognitive behavioral therapy, an effective approach to improving mental health. Know that if you do one less thing (or several), that you are not a failure—you are adapting.

Pandemic 'Silver Linings'

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought tremendous tragedy, with over 1.5 million deaths worldwide, and many more affected by loss of loved ones and caregiving. The scale of the loss can be overwhelming. During the holidays, it will be even more important to find moments to appreciate new experiences—as you experience them. Can you notice and appreciate an intimate family moment that you have this year (because you didn't travel to a large family gathering)?

Counter the sense of loss with gratitude for what is good about that moment. As a frequent business traveler, I now appreciate quiet moments at home, free from rushing through busy airports. Positive psychology practices, such as gratitude practice and counting “blessings,” have been shown to increase well-being and decrease depression.

So how is your therapist doing? I let my patients know that I'm hanging in there, but have ups and downs like anyone. I have moments of disappointment, frustration, and sadness, and don't always cope perfectly. I sometimes miss a day (or more) of meditation, eat or drink too much, exercise and get outside too little, take on too much, and can be self-critical. So this holiday season, I'll be trying my best to use these healthy strategies as much as possible, and be patient with myself when it doesn't go as planned.

Kimberly Hepner is a senior behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a licensed clinical psychologist.