Mental Health Tips for This COVID Christmas

A close-up of hands and knees of an unrecognizable lonely senior woman sitting on an armchair at home at Christmas time.

The holidays can feel far from festive as the pandemic rolls on and we’re faced with lockdowns and travel bans. Photo: Halfpoint/Getty Images

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” crooned Andy Williams in the 1963 Christmas classic of the same name.

But it may not feel that way this year, as the pandemic rolls on and we’re faced with lockdowns, gathering restrictions and travel bans barring some of us from even getting home for the holidays.

And for a good many Canadians, we’re heading into the end of the year feeling worse in general.

Data collected by Toronto-based global human resources firm Morneau Shepell, for its Mental Health Index, suggests that the number of working Canadians struggling with psychological wellness has more than doubled since this time last year — going from about 15 per cent to over 30 per cent.

“There are way more people not doing well as a result of everything we’ve gone through this year. And we’re now heading into this period of, you know, the winter blues, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — and just a very different holiday season. So we’re very concerned,” says Nigel Branker, president of health and productivity solutions at Morneau Shepell.


Under Pressure

As we prepare for the holidays amid a pandemic, Branker says it’s more important than ever to manage expectations and cut ourselves some slack.

“This has been a challenging year, it’s okay to not feel like yourself. So, number one, don’t add more to your plate.

“Don’t put that pressure to say, ‘I have to make this holiday season extra special for my kids or grandkids.’ Let’s recognize that we’re in unprecedented times, at the end of an unprecedented year, and let’s be gentle and take care of ourselves.”


Stay on Schedule

Speaking of self-care, what’s good for the body is also good for the mind, Branker points out. So keep up healthy lifestyle choices. And, whether it’s when you go for a walk each day or what time you eat dinner or when you wind down for bed, maintain a routine.

“Structure gives you a sense of control and purpose, which then helps you to overcome negative feelings.

“One of the things we’re all struggling with is that feeling, or sense of loss of control. What was normal has been turned on its head. So having a schedule, having a sense of normalcy — even if it’s only on a temporary basis — adds structure so we don’t have that sense of endlessly blowing in the wind.”

And, consider light therapy while the days are shorter. Get outside each day or try an artificial daylight lamp to counter depression-like symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — from which, as Branker notes, as many as 20 per cent of us suffer from in some way each winter.


Break the Cycle

Morneau Shepell  recently partnered with both Manitoba and Ontario to provide its virtual therapy program, AbilitiCBT, for free to residents (options start at $500 and are covered under most benefit plans in Canada). The program uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help people manage negative triggers.

“When we talk about CBT, it is that understanding that there is a linkage between how we think; how we feel; and how we behave,” Branker says.

“Wherever you start, they’re all related. I feel sad so I have negative thoughts and I’ll start to be irritable — and that makes me more sad. So it is about learning the tools to break the cycle.”

Branker says it’s okay to feel sad but it’s important to recognize a negative thought pattern when it starts. Maybe you can’t be with family for the holidays, for example, but don’t let that thought take you down the rabbit hole.

“Focus on the positives like, your family is safe. So even though this year looks different, thinking about the bigger picture is important.”


Write It Down

Of course it takes practice, but CBT offers people techniques to help park their negative thoughts.

“We all worry. Our thoughts are there, so accept and acknowledge that they’re there,” says psychotherapist Linda Naranjit, Morneau Shepell’s clinical director of health and productivity solutions.

Next, write them all out she says. Then, put them in a container. Naranjit jots hers on Post-it notes and has a little box in which to tuck them away.

“You’re honouring it. You’re saying, ‘Yes, this is a worry. And I care what that worry is.’ And you’ll start to notice, in your body and your mind, that you’ve let that go. You feel lighter in just doing that act.”


Live in the Moment

Writing down your worries is an act of mindfulness, Naranjit explains, which helps refocus and reframe negative thoughts — during a pandemic or not. “We take that time to embrace the moment and say ‘I’m here. I’m alive. The world has not stopped. It continues to move, it just moves differently.'”

Simply stopping to check in on ourselves, to do an inventory of what we’re thinking and how we’re feeling, is part of CBT.

“It teaches you how to be more in tune with yourself and understand when you feel stuck or if something’s not going right. You’re able to identify that and how to get self-care routines in place. In the program, we go through a lot of grounding exercises. For example, just the act of breathing.”


Breathe Right Tips

Yes, you may be breathing wrong.

“It sounds so simple, but a lot of people don’t breathe right,” Naranjit says with a chuckle.

Test it by putting one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach, and then take a breath. If you feel your chest move rather than your stomach, you’re shallow breathing.

“You really want to have breath in your stomach; deep breathing. So, in through the nose, all the way down, and out through the mouth — that’s a more relaxed state and that’s where you really want to be,” she explains. “It really de-escalates your stress in such a huge way and we often take it for granted.”


Give Thanks

And on the topic of taking things for granted, feeling better this holiday season can be as simple as thinking about the things and people for which you’re grateful.

“Gratitude is a social emotion. At a time when we’re starved for social interaction, it helps fill some of that void,” Branker says.

Research has shown that gratitude helps rewire the brain for positive thinking, Naranjit notes. It makes us feel better.

That’s why gratitude is on the agenda for her family as they gather for Christmas, virtually. Each will share what they are grateful for this past year. “It’s a strategy to help anchor you into the here and now, but also to elicit feelings of love and compassion and kindness,” she explains.

“And if we can do that, it really does stabilize things for us in a way that helps to build a level of resilience so we can get through these times.”


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