O Come, O come, Emmanuel!
To begin, I would like to recall the words of Our Lord in the Gospel of John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.”
This Christmas season marks nine months since our nation and lives were disrupted by the impacts of Covid-19. I suspect, in these past nine months, none have escaped some form of loss.
As a mental health counselor, I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to journey with believers and non-believers alike, aged 6 to 85, of all socio-economic backgrounds, through their mental health journey amidst Covid-19.
Below are some mental health recommendations to help us continue to cope with persisting pandemic impacts.
First, it is natural and expected that this year’s Christmas season may bring about a multitude of mixed feelings. Collectively, we have suffered significant loss. For many, our sense of security, whether it be physically, economically, or emotionally, has been compromised.
After such a challenging year, many hoped for the comfort and reassurance of family and friends. Instead they are being told to avoid family gatherings, continue to practice CCD recommendations, and that postponing this year’s celebrations may mean preserving future ones. These messages are in sharp contrast to the images we see on our television commercials, which advertise feel good moments, hot chocolate by the fire, family gatherings, gift giving, and merriment. Commercials typically meant to evoke nostalgia and positive feelings, may instead trigger anxiety and sadness.
An article written by Scott Benito, titled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief” captured a critical emotion experienced by so many during this pandemic that was hard to name, grief. The recognition that we are experiencing grief is important, as it begins our process towards the fifth stage of grief, which is acceptance.
Similarly, in my practice, I’ve noticed the significance of helping my clients label their emotions. Therefore, the first recommendation is:
Give a name to what you are feeling
Being able to give a name to what you are feeling is fundamental to helping you regulate and work through your emotions. Research shows that successfully labeling your feelings can help reduce their negative impact. Labeling an emotion not only calms down the part of the brain that is reacting to the situation, it activates the part of the brain that helps analyze and problem solve. Therefore, being able to identify your emotions not only helps you feel less emotionally flooded, it allows you to be clearer minded, and to process your emotions by making sense of them.
Know many of your feelings are valid
From a mental health perspective, our traditional and familiar emotional coping tools that involved reaching out to our support system, comforting the sick and mourning through touch and proximity, and holding memorial services which facilitated bereavement and closure after the loss of a loved one, have been shut down due to the pandemic.
Sometimes, in an effort to adapt and adjust to our “new normal,” such as scrambling to set up a home office for work, or juggling full time tele-work while supervising your children though virtual school, we push aside our emotions.
Several of my clients, especially children and adolescents, have a difficult time understanding why they feel down or anxious. I’ve observed children and adults alike dismiss and minimize the emotional impacts of their losses of normalcy, routine, gathering with friends, and visiting loved ones. Take time to talk to your children, or to remind yourself, that what we are going though is hard and that it is normal to feel sad and miss the life we knew. Validating your child’s or your own emotional experience can help you or your child begin to regulate his or her feelings and work towards acceptance.
Focus on what you can do
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Rather than become preoccupied with what is out of our control, focus on what is in your control. You can take steps to keep you and your family safe by following the CDC guidelines. You can try to be flexible and creative as you problem-solve new needs and demands. Similarly, helping your child know their options for staying connected with friends and loved ones helps them know the limits of what they can control, such as socially distanced visits, making drawings for loved ones, and scheduled Zoom meetings with grandparents and friends.
Remember, interpersonal connections can bless us with strength, encouragement, companionship, and compassion. Although we are unable to come together in person with typical traditions and rituals, it is healthy to continue to reach out to others via video, email, text, calls, or paper mail.
Another option is to think of how you can serve others. An act of kindness not only distracts us from our preoccupations, it can lift our mood and self-esteem. Some ideas might be to cook a meal for a loved one or neighbor and drop it off on their door step, donate to a local food pantry, teach a family recipe virtually to that relative that has always loved your holiday dessert, create DIY cards and ornaments with your children, and collaborate with your immediate and extended family or friends to create new traditions.
Take steps to care for your own mental health
Steps you can take to care for your own mental health include 1) creating a routine and schedule that conforms to your family’s “new normal.” Having structure in one’s day promotes health and well-being. 2) Try to do something outdoors at least once a day, weather permitting. Staying active and breathing fresh air can help decrease stress. 3) Don’t forget to have fun! Being distracted and engaging in enjoyable, active, and/or entertaining activities interrupts the process of stress, giving your body and mind time to recover.
Remember to be gentle with yourself and others
Individuals who are chronically stressed will gradually deplete their coping resources. As a reminder, living through a pandemic causes chronic stress. If you or others seem a bit more on edge, try to be patient and gentle with yourself and others.
Decreased patience, over-tiredness, or irritability may be an indication that we need to rest, increase self-care, or reach out to others. Most of the time, after a good night’s sleep, prayer session, a long run, or good chat with a confidant, we feel better. An example of being gentle with yourself is reminding yourself that we are each doing our best to survive this pandemic as gracefully as possible.
When to seek mental health treatment
Sometimes worries can grow so big, they feel consuming. Try to limit your worry by allotting a “worry time” in your day, which is a time when you give yourself permission to think about and feel the impact of your worries. I would limit the worry time to no more than 20 minutes, and 5-15 minutes for a child depending on their age. For your child, “worry time” is a time for him or her to share worries and questions, and an opportunity for you to provide support and reassurance. Once the “worry time” period ends, focus your attention on tasks that need to be attended to, such as daily responsibilities, self-care, exercise, and recreation.
If you notice your worries or emotions begin to interfere with your ability to accomplish daily tasks, your relationships, and/or your work, it may be time to seek extra support from a mental health professional. Similarly, if you notice loved ones are beginning to withdraw, oversleep, or show decreased pleasure in things they once considered pleasurable, encourage them to speak to a counselor for extra support.
A Season of Patience and Hope
While we’re living in what we pray is a temporary situation, being patient with ourselves and leaving room to experience our emotions is a healthy way to deal with the grief and loss we may feel around Christmas this year. Despite the challenges, for many, some consequences of the past year have been positive, such as the opportunity to spend more time with one’s household, develop crafts, and be more intentional about connecting with others.
Jesus is still the reason for the season
As I close, I’d like to softly speak to the heart of the Christmas season, Jesus! Jesus is still the reason for the season.
This Advent, as we prepare to welcome Our Lord’s birth into our hearts and homes on Christmas Day, may we be reminded that Mary and Joseph provided great models of faithfulness and perseverance amidst trying times. Mary and Joseph, arguably speaking, had to cope with a very challenging Christmas season. Prior to Jesus’ birth, they were obligated to comply with a government census by travelling with a nine-month pregnant woman on a donkey, which is no small feat. Away from comforts of home, familiarity, and support, they gave birth to God’s son in a manger. And if that were not enough, following a warning, they had to flee with a newborn to secure the safety of their child and Our Savior. In the midst of these trials, Mary and Joseph demonstrated steadfast faith. During this season, let us look to these models of faith, and imitate their example of staying the course and drawing nearer to Him despite novel circumstances and uncertainty.
By Dr. Cristina Melendez, Psy.D.