The chill in the air, carols being played on the radio and the warm glow from a fire all point to the start of the season of giving. What people call “the most wonderful time of the year” is in full swing, but that doesn’t mean it’s wonderful for everyone. Those same songs, scents and rituals that many hold dear during the holidays can be triggers for others with mental and behavioral health issues and a reminder of loss, loneliness and shame, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And this year will be especially difficult as we navigate our first holidays during a pandemic.
“When we hear 20/20, we think of clear vision but the year 2020 has sadly been filled with a lack of clarity, too much confusion and a loss of traditional ways of connecting and celebrating,” said psychiatrist Dr. Craig Martin, Vaya Health’s chief medical officer. “Humans are tactile individuals, and online connections are sometimes a poor substitute for hugs and holiday gatherings.”
A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that over 50% of American adults have reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to the coronavirus. For those with pre-existing challenges, this can seem unbearable at times. On top of this, the colder weather and shorter days can also affect those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), adding an additional burden to their mental health.
“It’s not hard to see why some people may see more darkness than light,” said Dr. Martin.
So, what can we do? Dr. Martin recommends maintaining positive connections, limiting exposure to things that bring down our mood, and using the break from our normal routine as an opportunity to build new ways of restoring ourselves and others. This can be through healthy diet and exercise and the use of meditation, prayer and reflection to focus on what’s truly important in life.
“The true holiday spirit is less about buying the newest trending gift for someone and more about sharing love for one another,” said Dr. Martin.
Simplify your thinking and your giving
It’s easy to fall back on tradition when it comes to the holidays, and people strive to get the perfect gift to make sure it feels like Christmas. It’s also easy to fall in the trap of thinking that if you received a gift, you should probably give one in return. This year, Dr. Martin recommends thinking a little differently.
“Gift giving is one way of building and maintaining connectivity, but cognitive behavioral therapists would remind us, particularly in this year’s environment, that we will benefit more from flexibility in thinking and staying away from the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ in our gifting traditions,” said Dr. Martin.
He reminds people that gifts can come in many forms, and a smile or a “thank you” can be just as powerful as giving back a tangible gift. Gifts of time, caring and connecting are the ones with the most value, especially right now, and we can help ourselves and others cope during this difficult time by staying connected. This can be through technology or even some old-fashioned letter writing. Dr. Martin stays in touch with his own children and family through texts and a group media account where they upload photos of their daily life, and when it comes to self-care, sometimes sharing is caring.
“I pet my dog because that increases the amount of oxytocin in my brain and his brain and makes us both feel better,” said Dr. Martin. “Even changing the water in a goldfish bowl to give him or her a nicer place to stay can help you get out of that old way of thinking. It’s easy to become self-absorbed, particularly with all the uncertainty going on, and to focus on what we can’t control and what we can’t influence rather than what we can shape and what we can do differently.”
Reaping the benefits of giving does not require a physical gift or even a high price tag. Doing volunteer work or giving a donation to a non-profit are simple ways to give, and for those closer to home, think homemade from the heart. Spending some extra time with a loved one, helping with tasks or chores or just sharing memories can make the best gifts.
“I think it’s nice to have a tradition of giving holiday cards with a personally written note about how that person is meaningful to you,” said Dr. Martin. “Specifically state a good memory that you have together and how you’re looking forward to creating more of those in the future.”
The Gift that gives twice
If you still want to give a physical gift, there’s a way to make it “give twice.” Buying from local small businesses helps support the individuals behind it while the person receiving gets to enjoy the end product. You can purchase homemade gifts from several Vaya Health members with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities (IDD) that run their own microenterprises. Read more in their individual stories and find out where to purchase: Bring nature inside with seasonal impressive impressed pots by Drew from Dmud Ceramics. You’ll find an assortment of pottery from vases and coffee mugs to bird whistles and more.
– Give the birds a treat and the birdwatcher in your life some live entertainment with Nick’s Bodacious Bird Bites. These birdfeed ornaments are the perfect way to decorate your yard.
– Enjoy a moment in time for years to come with a photo from Nick Burrow’s Photography. From concerts to landscapes, you’ll find something to fit everyone’s tastes.
Whatever way you decide to give this holiday season, keep it simple and remember what’s truly important this time of year (and all year long). Show someone you care. You’ll both feel better.
“It has been said that we live on in other’s lives not by what we take, but by what we give,” said Dr. Martin. “We know that the process of caring for others has proven benefits not only for those served, but for the person who does the giving. Neuroscience now backs up what folk wisdom and spiritual traditions have known for generations.”