As health and government officials both locally and throughout the nation continue to address the situation surrounding COVID-19 and area residents shift their attention to the holidays, health experts are reminding the community that taking care of mental health is critical to managing challenging times.
To prevent another spike in COVID-related hospitalizations throughout the Rio Grande Valley, physicians are urging the community to forego traditional large, indoor family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas and instead communicate with family via alternate means such as video chats and social media.
However, it is important to realize that such decisions can weigh heavily on mental health, said Becky Tresnicky, director of behavioral health services & performance excellence at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville.
“Once you have made the decision to skip the holiday trip or family gathering, you will have to cope not just with your own emotions, but your family’s emotions as well. For everyone involved, acknowledging the negative emotions and the sadness or disappointment is very important. Remember, ignoring emotions is not the same as controlling them; it’s just suppressing them,” she said. “It’s OK to admit that you are sad and disappointed and that you will miss these events. But, it’s entirely possible to still turn the holidays into a positive experience with alternative plans, even if they’re not the plans you’d hoped for. Traditionally, holidays create a spirit of giving and excitement which is good for our mental health — embrace the traditions you have and create new ones. They will ‘look’ different but they can still provide a sense of stability and belongingness.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, fear of the unknown can cause a range of emotions that can take their toll on both mental health and quality of life, said Anthony Manuel, director of Valley Baptist-Harlingen’s Geriatric Behavioral Health Unit.
“Fear and anxiety about any disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in all of us. With COVID-19, we are still dealing with a lot of uncertainty. Our normally structured and safe living environments have been turned upside down, which can lead us to feel powerless and vulnerable,” he said. “We become victims and feel powerless over everyday events. But being able to cope with the fear and stress puts us back in control of things. It is important to take care of your basic needs and engage in healthy coping strategies.”
Managing stress and fear can be difficult in today’s 24-hour news cycle. While it is important to stay up to date on the latest recommendations from health officials, Tresnicky said it is important to not become overwhelmed by the constant stream of COVID-19 news.
“Avoid too much exposure to news, this is so important,” she said. “Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories. It can be extremely upsetting to hear about the COVID-19 pandemic over and over.”
With social distancing practices continuing to be one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Manuel said it is important to both realize when you need help managing your mental health as well as to reach out to others who may be struggling during this challenging time.
“Connect with others while practicing social distancing. We are fortunate to have access to so many electronic methods of communication. Even writing letters to each other expressing your feelings will help,” he said. “Share your concerns and how you are feeling with a friend or family member. Maintain healthy relationships, and build a strong support system.Seek help when needed – if emotional distress impacts your activities of daily life talk to a mental health professional or your personal physician.”
When it comes to the holiday season, everyone approaches the feelings associated with family gatherings differently, Tresnicky said, stressing the importance of focusing on positives associated with the holidays to help maintain good mental health.
“The holidays intensify our feelings and emotions.In some cases they may magnify the feelings of anxiety, depression, and family conflict that make holiday gatherings, whether in person or virtual, challenging and emotionally draining,” she said.“In other cases, for people who thrive on family contact and love to socialize and connect with others, they can be exciting and fun. Wherever you are on the emotional spectrum, there are a few things you can do to make the holidays more enjoyable.”
For individuals who may be experiencing mental health challenges during the COVID-19 situation, the Texas Health and Human Services Department has established a toll-free COVID-19 mental health support line at (833) 986-1919. Those experiencing severe depression or suicidal/homicidal ideations should contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
As the holidays approach, mental health experts have offered these tips to help cope with changes to holiday plans:
- Acknowledge your feelings. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season.
- Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, contact someone. It may help to talk to a friend or family member about your feelings. Also, you may try doing something to help others. This takes your mind off your negative emotions and creates a sense of well-being as you help someone else.
- Don’t abandon healthy habits:
- Eat healthy meals
- Get plenty of sleep
- Include regular physical activity in your daily routine
- Try deep-breathing exercises, meditation or yoga
- Avoid excessive tobacco, alcohol and drug use
- Be aware of how the media can produce undue stress, and adjust the time you spend reading news and social media
- Listen to soothing music
- Read a book
- Seek professional help if you need it… Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad, anxious and depressed. You may be unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine daily activities. If these feelings continue, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.