Q + A with a registered social worker and psychotherapist about caring for our mental health over the holidays during a pandemic.
With summer well behind us and the colder months approaching, we are heading into our first holiday season with the pandemic on our minds. Many of us wonder what these winter months will bring. Staying connected to our loved ones is more important than ever to better cope during the bleak months ahead.
For some of us, the holidays are a nostalgic time filled with special traditions, fond memories, and quality time with loved ones. Though for others, the holidays are not so bright. Instead, some people will spend their weeks isolated, yearning for those lost or far away.
While there is no doubt that this will be a challenging year for all of us, sharing our experiences is a great way to build connections and bring us all closer together. Amidst these challenging times, here’s a list of Q and A’s that have been specially designed to help you take care of your mental health, maintain connection, and inspire more joy throughout the winter.
Q: How can we support our friends and family who live alone or feel very isolated?
Now more than ever people are feeling the weight of their loneliness. For those who live alone, these feelings are magnified during the holidays. If you know someone in this position, here are some supportive tips to help them through these times:
- Reach out often: Letting a friend or family member know you’re there to say hi and that you’re thinking about them can brighten their entire day.
- Try a new activity together: There are countless virtual activities you can enjoy online with friends and families. Engage in some friendly competition with a virtual game or sit back and stream a favourite Netflix movie together.
- Send a thoughtful gift: Sometimes it’s hard to put into words that you care for someone. Sending a cute, thoughtful, or funny gift to a loved one can be incredibly uplifting. Supporting a local business in your area can make it that much more special for both that person and your community.
- Encourage professional support: Although your support is beneficial to friends and family during these stressful times, it’s also important to encourage them to seek extra support from a professional.
Q: How can we strike a balance between caring for our health and safety, while still connecting with our loved ones?
Humans are born with an innate desire for social connection. Our friends and family give us a strong sense of purpose in our lives. Since we no longer have the luxury of face-to-face interactions, we must limit our social interactions to the bare minimum. For many of us, this can have quite a profound impact on our mental health.
No matter the circumstance, it’s important to find creative ways to stay connected in a safe and healthy manner. Here are some great ways to find the balance between caring for our health and safety while still connecting with your loved ones:
- Exercise outside with a friend: Even throughout the winter months it’s still encouraged to get outside and enjoy a fun-filled game or activity. Take on a new winter sport such as snowshoeing or country skiing, or bundle up by an outdoor fire with some hot drinks.
- Connect virtually: Setting up a video call has never been so easy with the abundance of technology right at our fingertips. Scheduling a weekly call to catch up with a friend or family member can be something you can both look forward to.
- Attend an online event: Another way to connect online with friends and family is through an online event. Depending on your interests, you can find film festivals, ballets, concerts, or a workshop to attend. The best part is that you both have something exciting to chat about afterwards.
Q: Do you have any pointers for people who have extremely different social comfort levels within their family during this time?
From one person to the next, everyone may be experiencing various levels of social comfort during the pandemic. For some, there may be strict rules in place to eliminate social interactions in the efforts to keep them and their family safe and healthy. For others, perhaps the rules are a little more relaxed in allowing only certain in-person interactions to take place.
No matter what sort of level of comfort you may have, it’s important to respect the opinions of others no matter how different or extreme they may be. Remember, everyone experiences stress in a unique way and it’s not something to argue ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’ over.
Instead, you can have an open and honest conversation with your friends or family about your comfort levels. It’s important to draw respectful boundaries and offer creative alternatives. For example, if you’re not comfortable with attending an indoor gathering, ask if they would like to go for an outdoor walk or have a zoom chat instead.
No matter what the activity is, it’s a matter of finding ways to share these experiences in a way that makes everyone feel safe and happy. Who knows, you may even make some new traditions along the way!
Q: Are there any warning signs we can look for in our loved ones indicating they may need professional help?
If you or someone you know is feeling sad, anxious, or fatigued more than usual, know that this can be a normal response in living in a global crisis. That being said, no one should have to go through this alone.
If you’re concerned about the health of a friend or family member during this time, here is a list of common warning signs that indicate they may be struggling mentally:
- Frequent mood fluctuations or persistent low mood
- Fatigue, lack of focus, or becoming withdrawn
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
- Loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities
As mental health clinicians, we are noticing the increasing pattern of people seeking professional support throughout these challenging times — even more so in those living with pre-existing health conditions, such as anxiety or depression where symptoms are amplified.
If you know someone who may be struggling with these symptoms, encourage them to reach out for professional medical and mental health support. These professionals can help you regain control over your life by seeking more effective coping mechanisms during these challenging times. Contact your family doctor and consider reaching out for mental health therapy.
Q: How can we cope with our anxieties during these challenging times?
Prioritizing our mental health is more important now than ever before. Although there are many ways to cope with our anxieties to improve our mental health, it’s important to direct our attention to what we have control over in the world around us.
If you’re someone who tends to get caught up in a spiral of distressing thoughts and emotions, continuously ruminating about the uncertainty all around you, take a deep breath and come back to this present moment. Now we can truly discover what brings you peace and joy. Here are some suggestions to help you cope with your anxieties during this time:
- Disconnect from technology: So much of our stress and anxiety is coming from what we consume daily. Try limiting the time spent watching the news or scrolling through social media. It may even be helpful to turn off notifications and/or delete the apps that don’t bring you joy.
- Enjoy your own company: Taking the time to deepen your relationship with yourself can be incredibly advantageous during these times. Sometimes it’s the little things that spark joy such as taking a warm bubble bath or making breakfast for dinner.
- Go outside and explore: Get out into nature for a daily walk and explore a park, trail or beach nearby. There’s something about being in nature that can be incredibly grounding and restorative.
- Read a book: Now is a great time to pick up a book you’ve been meaning to read. Even better, consider starting a book club with a friend to discuss your monthly reads over zoom or facetime.
- Practice Mindfulness: A great way to cope with anxiety is through mindful practices or meditation. These sorts of exercises can help you reconnect yourself back to the present moment and relieve your built-up stress or tension.
- Move your body: Working out is beneficial both for your physical self and your mind. Get out for a run, try a yoga routine, or simply just throw on some music and dance — anything to get your body moving.
- Write down your thoughts: The practice of journaling can be incredibly advantageous in these challenging times. It helps you make sense out of the thoughts that race through your mind and foster a better connection with your deeper self.
- Be creative: Try channelling your energy into a creative project or activity you know you’d enjoy. You can either reconnect with a past interest or hobby or try something you’ve always wanted to do. Giving your brain a new task can motivate you to learn, overcome mistakes, and grow in a lot of ways.
Q: If you could offer one piece of advice to someone having a hard time, what would that be?
Although what you’re going through must feel intensely lonely right now, you must understand that you are not alone. Our bodies and minds are responding to a threat to our health and safety which has led to a ‘fight or flight’ defence mechanism. This nervous system response can bring about incredibly distressing emotions.
It’s important to adjust your expectations about yourself for the upcoming months. If you’re not as productive at work, not as disciplined at the gym, or have less patience with your kids — be kind to yourself. The more compassion and grace we all give ourselves, the more we can reflect outwards onto those around us. Remember that this may take practice so continue to be mindful and work on this every day.
While as a collective we may grieve and seek repair long after the pandemic is over, I have hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. From this, we have a new perspective on life. Where we focus our energy matters as we have the opportunity to connect deeper with ourselves, others, and the causes that matter most. More importantly, we will find strength in the journey through these shared experiences. At the end of the day, we are stronger together.
Written by Alexandra Tan, MSW, RSW