Protecting Your Mental Health During the Holidays

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As joyful as the holiday season can be, it's also a time that's difficult for many for a variety of reasons. Feelings of being overwhelmed, anxious and depressed are all too common, no matter your individual circumstances. To learn more about ensuring your mental health remains a priority this time of year, we connected with Dr. Charletta Dennis, Medical Director of Behavioral Health for Priority Health.

Right away, Dr. Dennis had a reminder for anyone reading this:

"It's important to remember that it's OK to not be OK," she said, add that it's normal to feel down during this time of year. "The American Psychological Association reports about 38% of people say their stress increases during the holiday season, which can often lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety and substance misuse."

Dr. Dennis notes that about 64% of individuals living with a mental illness feel their conditions worsened around the holidays.

"These are staggering statistics and help is always available!" she said. "There are many reasons why some may not feel their best during this time. They include lack of time to check all the boxes off that to-do list, financial pressure, gift-giving, shopping and family gatherings. On top of jam-packed calendars, people may also be dealing with end-of-the-year work deadlines, sunless winter days, and in some instances, the loss of a loved one."

If you're wondering how to recognize if you or a loved one may be struggling, Dr. Dennis recommends paying attention to the following signs:

  • Feeling down for days.
  • Can't find motivation to do activities you normally enjoy.
  • A loss of interest.
  • Difficulty interacting.
  • Appetite or weight changes.
  • Uncontrollable emotions.
  • Turning to alcohol or other substances for comfort.
  • Feelings of hopelessness or thinking about suicide.

In order to protect your mental health during the holiday season, Dr. Dennis says her two biggest pieces of advice are to learn to say "no" if the situation is too stressful and to be kind to yourself.

"Put your own mental and physical well-being first," she stressed. "Recognize what your triggers are to help you prepare for stressful situations. For example, is shopping for holiday gifts too stressful for you? What is making you feel agitated? Once you know this, you can take steps to cope."

It's also vital that you know how to set boundaries.

"Family dynamics can be complex, and it helps to acknowledge them and accept that you can only control your role," said Dr. Dennis, who personally makes it a priority to relax during the holidays. "Deep breathing, meditation and muscle relaxation are all good ways to calm yourself. Taking a break to refocus can have a big impact on your mood and productivity."

Don't forget to be kind to your body.

"Make healthy eating choices, drink plenty of water, get at least seven hours of sleep each night and find ways to move your body," Dr. Dennis explained. "Whether it's a walk outside or a visit to the gym, daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body."

If you're doing everything you can but continue to feel overwhelmed or depressed, Dr. Dennis wants everyone to remember that professional help is available. And if you know someone in your life who is struggling, Dr. Dennis recommends reaching out to them and utilizing "I" statements.

"'I care' or 'I love you' can go a long way in showing someone you care," she said. "If you have an immediate need, call or text 988, or chat 988lifeline.org to reach the National 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Priority Health members who are in need of immediate support for severe emotional distress, contact our behavioral health team. Confidential help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The number is printed on the back of all member cards."

Dr. Dennis also shared that Priority Health is currently offering free access to a digital tool called myStrength to all Michiganders. It's a behavioral health tool that is safe, secure and personalized, and helps users recharge, refresh and improve their mood. You can sign up here.

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.


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