Editorial: Take a moment for mental health this holiday season

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot

The holiday season should be a time for happiness and mirth. But for many, it’s a time of high anxiety and stress.

Gift buying, cooking, cleaning and other preparations can be a burden that creates high levels of fatigue, irritability, sadness and anger. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), signs and symptoms associated with mental health temporarily worsen around this time of year.

It’s not hard to see why.

Many of us set perilously high expectations for the holidays. We aspire to find the ideal gifts for friends and family, regardless of the harm it does to our budgets, and want our homes to look ready to appear on the cover of a magazine.

Efforts to make each Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa unforgettable are too often misdirected and misapplied though.

It seems there’s always something else that needs to be remembered, which means there’s something else that may have been forgotten. Take a moment to reflect. The highest priority on your to-do list this holiday season must be that of protecting your own mental health.

Take a deep breath, exhale and relax for a moment. If you consult with a psychologist, therapist or other healthcare professionals, then consider making an appointment to speak with them during this busy time.

The American Psychological Association suggests people feeling pressure from the holidays prioritize their own self-care by participating in the things that make them feel joy. Consider going for a long walk, getting a massage or reading a book. Be mindful and focus on the present rather than dwell on the past or worry about the future.

Having realistic expectations is another key. Create a list of holiday activities for the coming days and consider shedding a few of the less essential items. Ask friends and family about simpler ways to achieve the items still on your list.

Is there a way of decorating for the holidays without having to haul a tree into your home? Do you even need to get on your rood to hang lights from the eve? Surely, there must be an easier way.

Remember that everything does not need be perfect to be festive. Lopsided decorations, burnt food and unfulfilled wish lists will not trigger the end of the world. Happiness is often found in the tender moments spent with friends and family in an otherwise quiet environment.

Social media — where models, gifts and families are perfectly posed — can also stoke anxieties of unrealistic expectations. What is depicted on these sites often does not reflect reality.

Take stock of what is truly important. Gifts and gourmet food are nice, but they do not match up to the intangibles that come with spending time with loved ones.

That’s particularly true in a year that’s seen so much disruption, so much pain and worry, over the coronavirus and the economic turmoil it helped foster. The holidays can increase stress and anxiety when it should be a time for comfort and joy.

It’s important to let your family know that holidays are times to express gratitude, appreciation and give thanks for what you all have, including each other. Families might not be able to celebrate together but can still find ways to share fun and laughter. This can also be a time to build bridges with family who have otherwise drifted apart.

Remember, feelings of dread, stress and anxiety detract from what should be a time of enjoyment and days of pleasant celebration spent with family and friends. There’s no shame in feeling overwhelmed. Talking about it with a family member, trusted friend or mental health professional can make all the difference.

Most of all, try to enjoy the spirit of the season. Take a moment to relax and share in the joy of the holidays.

Editor’s note: This editorial is adapted from one that appeared in The Pilot and Daily Press last year.