Doctor’s holiday advice: ‘Learn to say no’

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The holidays may look and feel different this year. Virtual family dinners, distance between loved ones and friends, and perhaps, even, “COVID-19 fatigue.”

With these factors in mind, doctors say mental health should be a focus, now, more than ever.

Stress and anxiety of the holidays may be compounded due to changes to tradition because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To stay grounded, Dr. Patrick Jensen, a board-certified psychiatrist with Peninsula Behavioral health hospital spoke to WATE 6 On Your Side about ways we can all support ourselves and each other.

“Oftentimes, there’s an idealization that occurs with the holidays and we often forget that for some people it’s a very traumatic and depressing time. Some people mourn the holiday season because it reminds them of loss or grief. They lost a loved one recently or even during the holidays. And so it’s a potent reminder of that time,” said Dr. Patrick Jensen.

Jensen said it’s more important than ever before to stay connected, even if it is virtual because it could be an opportunity to check-in on loved ones.

“I think we’re all grasping for that or trying to ascertain that and understand that and cope with it, but absolutely, I think families, if there’s if they can maintain any of their holiday traditions, even if it’s over Zoom, that would be ideal,” said Jensen.

Take care of your own mental health

Have you asked yourself, “Where I start?” If so, Dr. Jensen said that is normal and has tips on ways to make mental health a priority.

  • Create boundaries: “Learn to say the word ‘no’ so you can give your best.”
  • Engage in activities that allow you to thrive emotionally and physically: “Whether it’s exercise, nutrition, spiritual things that you do, things that encourage your faith, emotionally healthy things that you do. You know, like reading that book can mean to get to that you’ve been really wanting to read.”
  • Stick to a holiday plan: “One of the things that can cause a lot of frustration is constantly modifying what you’re going to be doing every day to change. And that can create a lot of frustration for families and for the self, the self-care. So just to create that plan, be intentional, and plan with it.”
  • Connect with the people you love: “It can provide hope for the mindset, and it provides a sense of continuity that, you know, if you maintain that tradition, whatever that is, whether it’s a meal that you’re having in your home and you’re connecting with your extended family.”

Take care of others, the people you love

  • Avoid isolation, it’s time to check-in: “A lot of people, if they’re suffering, if they’re depressed or suffering from anxiety or suffering from a substance use disorder, there can be shame around that because there’s not supposed to be doing that during the holiday season.”
  • How are you doing? “Have things been difficult for you this holiday season and what is it reminding you of? And I just want to know I’m here. I’m just here. So then when you start to inquire, they may become transparent about how difficult it is and then it provides a context…”
  • Behavioral and lifestyle changes: “If you’re living in the same house with someone, they stop eating or sleep disturbances. They stop attending to their hygiene.”

If someone expresses suicidal thoughts or entertained passive suicidal thoughts at any point, that is a sign they need help. It may be professional help, Jensen said.

“A worst-case scenario, they begin to talk about how life’s not worth living. They’re entertaining thoughts like, what if I wasn’t here? What do you care?” said Jensen.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a resource available every day, 24 hours a day. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention, and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

Acknowledging emotional impacts of the holidays

Acknowledgment is a tool that can be applied to mental health year-round. That, Jensen says, is when we recognize that there may be challenges, even over the holidays, that can impact people emotionally.

Loneliness is exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and the lack of public meeting or gathering spaces that are open in-person.

Combine that with “holiday blues” or depression, and Jensen said, it makes sense many people are exhausted.

“I think we’re all experiencing some COVID fatigue to some extent, which means that any effort to connect with people, even through modifiable means like Zoom, is going to be helpful to re-establish some sense of connection, some sense of normalcy,” said Jensen.

Peninsula has a Holiday Survival Guide with more tools to keep mental health at the top-of-mind during a different holiday season.

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