As the seasons change from fall to winter, the rollercoaster of emotions we’ve experienced in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for the past two years continues to affect us. Some people are planning holiday celebrations that will make up for the ones they missed last year, whereas others are still dealing with a range of emotions triggered by the pandemic and the state of our global community. But this time of the year also presents a great opportunity to fortify our mental health by rediscovering the hope this season brings.
We saw our lives change rapidly during the holidays last year: We canceled plans, put relationships on hold, moved celebrations to later in the year and modified our traditional celebrations to uphold new social-distancing guidelines. In addition, we experienced a great deal of emotional pain caused by the death of friends and relatives from COVID-19. We also witnessed social problems, relationship struggles, and the loss of jobs and important plans. These experiences are not trivial, and they have had a real impact on our mental health.
In fact, studies show that our experience with this pandemic is already shaping behavior, and some project it will have lasting effects on the basic ways in which we interact with each other and the world. If people are socializing less often, for example, it could affect how they view themselves and how they relate to their community.
Just as nature plans for difficult times — with trees letting go of leaves to conserve energy and ants and squirrels gathering resources to sustain them through the winter — we must also prepare emotionally as we enter this holiday season. For us, planning ahead could mean organizing our thoughts and emotions, which not only allows us to grow in our ability to overcome the emotional and psychological effects of post-COVID-19 changes but also helps us prevent situational depression and be ready to face unexpected turns confidently.
The following mental health plan, which consists of three steps, serves as a valuable resource for emotional protection as we face both the physical and emotional change of seasons, and it can help us turn these experiences into opportunities for growth and rediscovering hope.
Step 1: Understand your emotions.
Our emotions, even the uncomfortable ones, are always telling us something. The Pixar movie Inside Out does a great job at highlighting some of the emotions that help keep us safe: Disgust motivates us to stay away from germs. Anger helps us react to something we consider unjust or threatening. Fear and anxiety increase and prompt us to fight or escape something dangerous. Sadness encourages us to withdraw for a while to rest and heal, and tears signals to others that we need care.
Understanding our emotions helps us realize that what we are currently experiencing is a natural and expected reaction to the present situation. We have lost many things during the pandemic: social skills, connection, income, relationships and loved ones. Our emotions are, therefore, natural responses that appear when we lose something of value to us.
The pandemic has caused many people to reevaluate what is really important in their lives and to make changes. In psychology, this is called posttraumatic growth — a phenomenon in which positive change occurs as a result of struggling with challenging and stressful lives events. Studies have shown that a happy life starts with emotional well-being, and emotional well-being is a result of a healthy mind. That is why it is important to learn to be aware of our emotions, listen to them, take care of them and accept them.
Step 2: Focus on your resilience.
According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, about 41% of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic. A KFF Health Tracking Poll from July 2020 also found that many adults are reporting specific negative impacts on their mental health and well-being, including difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%) and an increase in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%).
Although these statistics can be discouraging, it is also important to remember that you can focus on your resiliency and ability to overcome difficult situations. In fact, resilience is a psychological trait that can help keep you safe. Resilience can boost your immune response by providing you with an optimistic and hopeful view of the future; you believe your future will be better than your present and that you have the capacity to make that happen.
Psychological studies have found that our physiological immune system can help us not only detect and fight infectious disease but also detect and defend against “emotional infections.” In a similar way to how our body produces serotonin to help us heal from infections, our body can release dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone, to help us heal emotionally.
Throughout the pandemic, counselors, psychologists, pastors and community leaders have all offered advice on how to handle stressful situations and reduce cortisol levels. The most important ones to remember during the holiday season are
- Have self-compassion and avoid demanding so much out of yourself
- Stop constantly reading and watching news
- Keep your internal emotions in check
Step 3: Use a rationalization technique.
Studies have shown that people are prone to overestimate or underestimate situations based on their emotions. For instance, people who are anxious about flying tend to overestimate the risks of flying when compared to driving, even though statistically flying is safer.
But just as fear can spread, hope can also be spread. Be a holder of hope. Make sure you remind yourself of your strengths, confidence and abilities. Crises are usually viewed as negative or dangerous, but they can also bring opportunities for improvement. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, allowed individuals to find innovative ways to work from home and celebrate birthdays and weddings under social-distancing guidelines. And infidelity may cause a couple to reassess how much they value their relationship, which leads them to form a stronger bond and develop better boundaries.
After the difficult holiday season, we experienced last year in quarantine and isolation, you may feel relief this year because you can celebrate with your family and friends again, or maybe you feel you have personally grown and have a renewed perspective and appreciation for what matters most. This renewed perspective, along with realistic expectations, can be helpful as you move forward. Expect that you will miss the things, experiences and people you have lost during the pandemic. Expect to be emotional as you continue to adjust to the “new normal.” But you can also expect that you can overcome and improve your situation.
Remember that the beauty of the diamond comes from the extreme pressure and heat it experienced. The same is true for us. Just like diamonds, we may have gone through extreme conditions of pressure and heat last year. But we can emerge stronger from this crisis if we focus our energy on finding the positive lessons it gave us and hold on to one another this holiday season.
Esther Scott is a licensed professional counselor and solution-focused therapist in Arlington, Texas. Her specialties include relationship counseling, grief, depression, anxiety and teaching coping skills. Contact her at positiveactionsinternational.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.