Thrive by IU Health

November 18, 2020

How to Cope with Holiday & COVID-19 Stress

How to Cope with Holiday & COVID-19 Stress

With COVID-19 cases on the rise and the holidays around the corner, you may be feeling stress from all over. Your family plans are changing. Days are getting shorter. The warm holiday traditions you cherish upended. Not to mention, the holidays in a typical year can be overwhelming anyway.

Beyond that, outside stressors may be bearing down too – kids at home, stressful work situations, and a persistent pandemic. It’s normal to feel increased stress and anxiety.

While this season may not look like what you anticipated, IU Health family medicine physician, Dr. Mecca Maxey-Smartt, MD offers practical mental health tips so you can have a happy and healthy holiday season.

Mentally prepare yourself for the holidays

Managing your expectations for the winter season can help you prepare for what’s to come. Before filling out your calendar for the season, sit down and be realistic with yourself.

“Focus on what’s most meaningful to you this holiday season,” said Maxey-Smartt. “Is it family? Is it health? Is it slowing down and intentionally being more present ‘in the moment’?”

Make safe choices for your family

Once you’ve identified your priorities, plan how you can meet your expectations in a way that’s safe and responsible. Whether you host a virtual dinner, spend the holidays at home or create new traditions, Maxey-Smartt encourages everyone to be creative and have a meaningful holiday season at home.

“I know that everyone is tired of wearing masks and limiting travel or social activities, but these practices are proven to limit the spread of COVID-19,” said Maxey-Smartt. “The point is to make it to next year without you or your loved ones getting significantly ill. If we want to return to normal as soon as possible, we all have to do our part.”

While it can be frustrating, recognize that some unforeseen circumstances are out of your control. Instead of focusing on what you can’t control, focus on what you can. Practicing mindfulness can help ground you when you feel overwhelmed by unpredictability.

“This will likely seem like a longer winter than normal because of the pandemic,” said Maxey-Smartt. “Keep in mind that all pandemics in history have all eventually gone away, and this current pandemic is no exception.”

Learn how to respond to feeling overwhelmed

When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or stressed, it can be difficult to get out of that mindset. It’s important to slow down and acknowledge why you may be feeling the way you are.

“Just like we adjust our lives to thrive in wintertime, we have to learn to also thrive mentally and physically in the midst of this pandemic,” said Maxey-Smartt.

Maxey-Smartt offers the following steps to help recognize and relieve stress:

  1. Walk away from what you’re doing for a minute or two, reflect on why you’re feeling that way and if you can do anything about it at that moment.
  2. Take some deep slow breaths in a quiet space. If you can address the source of stress at that moment, deal with it. If not, write it down and prioritize what needs to be done first.
  3. Ask yourself if what you’re feeling stressed about is even worth getting upset over.
  4. Give yourself permission to not sweat the small stuff.

We have all had a tough year. We have had to figure out new ways of living. Don’t beat yourself up over things you can’t control. Do the best you can to the best of your ability and give yourself credit for making it through.

Look on the sunny side

As days get shorter in the winter, you might find yourself lacking energy and motivation. Maxey-Smartt encourages people to embrace winter. Plan fun activities and things to look forward to during the colder and darker months.

Some fun activities to add to your winter list could include:

  • Take advantage of snow days by getting outside with your family members and sledding or building snowmen.
  • Plan a weekly movie or game night with those in your ‘bubble’ to look forward to every week.
  • Have a craft night where you decorate and personalize your masks.
  • Re-discover your pantry and make something new in the kitchen with your family.
  • Have a dance party by yourself or with your family.

If you’re struggling to get through the darker days, look at your diet and make sure you’re getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals that boost your energy levels.

Keep on moving

While the winter weather can make you want to spend all your free time under a blanket, it’s important to remain active.

“Exercise helps tremendously with boosting your mood,” said Maxey Smartt. “It releases the endorphins your brain needs to feel happy and satisfied.”

If you don’t feel comfortable going to a gym or it’s too cold out for your favorite outdoor activities, there are plenty of ways to get active at home. You can invest in workout equipment, watch fitness videos online or even incorporate more physical activity into your daily routine by walking more.

Maxey-Smartt encourages individuals to still get outside and get moving, especially on the days when it’s sunny.

“Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you can’t go outside and bike, walk, hike and skate.”

If you find yourself making excuses to not exercise, schedule the exercise in your phone or on your calendar suggests Maxey-Smartt. The goal is 2.5 hours per week. You have seven days to hit that goal and you can get a good workout in as little as 15 minutes per session. If you work from home, use that extra time you’re not commuting to get in some exercise.

Take time for yourself

While it may be disappointing that some of your traditional holiday plans have shifted this year, try to be optimistic. The holidays often bring stress and anxiety due to the countless obligations, time spent traveling, hosting events and sitting in traffic.

Due to COVID-19, a lot of the activities that would leave you drained have to be saved for next year. Take advantage of the quiet winter season to decompress and do some self-care.

Here are some small ways to stay balanced when you begin to feel overwhelmed:

  • Reset. If you feel burned out, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, drinking lots of water and staying active. Incorporating these things into your routine will leave you feeling good inside and out.
  • Moderate. When stressed, you may find yourself turning to alcohol or unhealthy foods. It’s important to recognize this coping mechanism only gives you short-term relief and can worsen your physical and mental health.
  • Organize. Turn on your favorite playlist, podcast or movie and clean out that area of your house that you have been putting off. You will not only feel accomplished but being in a tidy space also brings clarity.
  • Plan. Take the extra time at home to sit down and plan out some realistic goals you’d like to achieve in the upcoming year. While 2020 has been unpredictable, it can be motivating to focus on the aspects of your life that you do have control over.
  • Participate. With more time inside, you can finally read that book, take that online course, bake that recipe or kick off the hobby you’ve been dying to try. Staying productive with activities you enjoy can help you remain present.
  • Connect. Winter months can amplify loneliness. Check in with your loved ones through phone or video chat.

When you find an activity that brings you peace, incorporate it into your daily or weekly routine. By being consistent and intentional with your self-care routine, you can reduce or prevent feelings of stress and anxiety.

“Most importantly, just remember we’re all living through this together and will eventually get to the other side of this pandemic, said Maxey-Smartt. “Don’t beat yourself up as you try to learn how to do a virtual meeting or prepare your children for school. You’re doing the best you can. Let’s try to support and uplift each other at this time because this world definitely needs a ‘group hug’ right now.”

Additional Mental Health Resources

  • Be Well Indiana: Find resources designed to help Hoosiers stay connected and maintain their well-being during COVID-19 crisis
  • Indiana Addiction Hotline: 1.800.662.HELP (4357)

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