Putting the ‘Merry’ back into the holidays

December 10, 2020

By Sandra Millon Underwood PhD, RN, FAAN
Professor, UW-Milwaukee School of Nursing

Purchasing that ‘perfect’ gift and decorating and cooking for the holidays can become overwhelming—even in an uneventful year. Added to the stress and pressure of the holidays this year is the coronavirus pandemic. However, if we pause to take a breath, and put things in perspective, there are some ways to help put the ‘merry’ back into Christmas.

According to Dawn Shelton-Williams, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical psychotherapist for more than 30 years, the holidays can be challenging for people for many reasons including grief, the stress of added responsibilities, isolation, anxiety, depression, and financial insecurity.

“Some people have lost family members or friends— especially with COVID-19— and they are grieving their loss. Also, the isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic changes the way that many families celebrate the holidays. Celebrations and the joy that we tend to equate with the holidays is just not there for some people. Coupled with this, sometimes people have this fantasy perception of what the holidays should be and, while there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a wonderful holiday, we should try to be realistic and focus more on the true meaning of the holidays,” said Shelton-Williams.

“There’s also a tendency to overindulge in certain behaviors during the holidays— eating or drinking too much, and even spending too much. We want our family and children to get everything they want for Christmas but overspending only causes more anxiety once the holidays are over and the bills come due. Also, when we have gatherings— even when we are following the recommendations for hosting smaller gatherings this year—we must remember which friends or family members drink too much or criticize too much, and make a conscious effort to accept people for who and what they are,” she said.

Along with anxiety and stress Dr. Earlise Ward, Professor in the School of Nursing, licensed psychologist, and Program Lead for the Cancer Health Disparities at the University of Wisconsin- Carbone Cancer Center, said that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more suicide ideations this year compared to last year.

“Research shows that suicide ideation is three times higher and depression rates four times higher than this time last year. And, the increased number is highest in young adults, 18 to 24 years of age, Latino and Black populations, essential workers, and unpaid caregivers,” said Dr. Ward.

If we notice unusual behaviors with loved ones, Dr. Ward suggests encouraging them to get professional mental health.

“Some people may not have health insurance, but there are agencies that provide pro bono assistance or services based on income, such as the Milwaukee Health Services, Inc. Sometimes help can be found at the tip of our fingers as telemedicine continues to be more accessible. And people should not hesitate to access their support networks. Yes, we are encouraged to practice social distancing, but we can engage in physical distancing without neglecting social distancing— stay connected and don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend, an aunt or cousin for help and support,” said Dr. Ward.

Nyles Jackson, a licensed clinical social worker, practicing psychotherapist and addiction specialist, said that in addition to the holidays, the combination of the pandemic, political stress and civil/social unrest have helped create an all-time high of anxiety and stress in some individuals. He said that minorities and other marginalized communities tend to experience these stresses in inequitable measures.

“The first thing to keep in mind is that people are naturally resilient. It’s common for us to bounce back from adversities. If we hold onto that as a reminder, it sets the stage for helping us cope. Beyond that we can look at things from three perspectives— past, present and future. From the past, we can focus on some of our joyful, experiences, pleasant memories and connect with friends and family with those memories. In the present, try to identify those small positives we are now experiencing. Pay attention to how we’re communicating with people and, even though we’re wearing masks, look at people in their eyes to connect. And, as we look to the future, think about things to come—hopeful things. What are we looking forward to and what can we be inspired to do? Make plans for a future vacation, start saving for something in future, and set goals or personal habits for the future,” said Jackson.

Technology, while used to facilitate communication particularly during this pandemic, can sometimes cause increased feelings of isolation. Moreover, not everyone has access to technology or feels comfortable using it. Gale Johnson, Director of the Wisconsin Well Woman Program, suggests that returning to ‘snail mail’ may be just what’s needed during the holidays.

“We are living in a world of technology, but not everyone is comfortable using platforms such as Zoom or Skype, or access may not be economically feasible. People still enjoy receiving mail, so sending a short letter or card to let someone know you’re thinking of them can do wonders. That’s one simple and inexpensive thing we can do for those who may be feeling isolated or alone. It’s also something that we can involve our small children and grandchildren in doing—making cards out of old paper and sending personal notes and pictures,” said Johnson.

Each of these experts also stress the importance of self-care— particularly during the holidays.

“We want everyone to come out of this pandemic whole (i.e., mind, body and spirit), so we can once again interact with friends and relatives, but at this time we have to stay safe and take care of ourselves. Keeping physically active is important and doesn’t require a gym membership. You can do something as simple as walking around your neighborhood or in your apartment building, or even marching in place during a favorite television program,” said Johnson.

Dr. Ward is also a fan of practicing mindfulness techniques, relying on spiritual beliefs and reflecting on what she calls “gratitude moments”.

“When you are overwhelmed your breathing increases, adding to stress. You can slow things down by breathing—we call it ‘centering’ your breath. It’s just a matter of taking two deep breaths and exhaling slowly and doing this throughout the day. Also, try to avoid negative self-talk. It’s easy to get caught up in that, so make a conscious effort to re-write negative thinking. Focus on those things that are going well in your life—I call them ‘gratitude moments.’ Recount two or three things each day for which you are grateful and make this a daily routine,” said Dr. Ward

Shelton-Williams advises that even though the holidays can be challenging—especially this year—it’s important to remember what the holidays are all about. She advises that people should be kind to themselves and give themselves permission to let go of things. Most of all, be grateful, even during this time of COVID-19, racial injustices, and a contentious presidential election. Amid all of it, focus on the things for which you can and should be grateful, she advises.

The Healthy Eating and Active Living Milwaukee (HEAL) is a culturally-tailored program that aims to provide education, resources to secure healthy foods, and active living supports for adults at risk for developing lifestyle-related diseases; and, to empower adults to make changes in their physical and social environment to improve nutrition and physical activity. ‘Like’ their Facebook page that’s full of videos of healthy recipes and low-cost, no-cost exercise.