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Commentary: Don’t neglect your mental health this holiday season

Brooke Wanser

Brooke Wanser is a freelance reporter for the Williamson Herald

The holiday season is here, but it just doesn’t feel the same.  

Doctors and scientists are concerned that coronavirus cases will spread faster as temperatures drop and activities move indoors. Public health experts are urging Americans to minimize their travel and gatherings over the holidays. 

As the sun sets earlier, it can feel like a darkness has descended upon our lives.

Over the past few weeks, friends have expressed their sadness about canceled plans, loved ones who are sick or at risk and the feeling that many people simply do not care about the health of the rest. Add the aftermath of one of the most highly charged elections in U.S. history and you have a recipe for anxiety.

I’ve struggled with bouts of depression and seasonal affective disorder for over a decade. In my senior year of high school, I attempted suicide on a Tuesday, went to an inpatient center for two days and returned to school on Friday. At the time, I didn’t speak of it to anyone but my closest friends. 

For years after that, I received hours of professional therapy and struggled to find meaning. I’ve since found a reason to live and a purpose for my life, but I know how it feels to not want to get out of bed in the morning. 

I still feel hopeless and discouraged by our world at times. And I know how it feels to feel nothing at all. 

If you’ve experienced these emotions lately, you aren’t alone. 

Dr. Amanda Harrell, who works at Nashville Psychotherapy Solutions in Brentwood, says she has seen an uptick in mental health concerns from clients she counsels. 

“If they already had preexisting mental illness before this, it’s been exacerbated,” she says. “And people who don’t usually experience symptoms, they are. There’s just so much at one time.” 

Here are some practical ideas on how to cope with anxiety and depression during this season.

Pay attention to what your body needs: Have you been getting enough sleep or sleeping too much? Drinking enough water? Drinking too much alcohol? Experiencing chronic pain? 

All these things can affect your mental state. Becoming aware of and getting a handle on your physical problems first can help improve your mental health. If you do have an underlying mental health condition, make sure you are treating it appropriately, either with talk therapy, medication, or both.

Recognize your need for socialization: Reducing social interactions has impacted almost all of us in a negative way. 

“Not going to church or Bible studies or book clubs, I think all of that provided different mood benefits that we didn’t realize until they’re gone,” Harrell said. 

Stay in touch with your support system any way you can, whether through FaceTime, phone calls, socially distanced meetups or writing letters. Harrell suggests participating in Zoom social events. As she has told clients, it’s not the same, but in terms of trying to help you cope, it’s better than nothing.

Put down the phone: I have often found myself stuck in the spiral of checking various social media apps at the end of the day, growing more frustrated with every click and swipe. 

In addition to evidence about the negative effects of social media, research shows using a phone right before bed suppresses sleep. Try setting a timer on your social media apps to limit the amount of time you spend each day. 

Before bed, instead of picking up your phone, set it across the room and pick up a book or journal. 

Get outside and get moving: When you don’t feel like doing anything, your last priority may be to exercise. This is where discipline comes in. 

If you make it to the gym or complete even a 10-minute at-home workout, you will feel better about yourself and gain a small dose of confidence. Over time, those workouts add up to improve strength, endurance and mental well-being.

I’m also a big believer in the power of nature, and there are myriad studies to back up that feeling. Even a 20- to 30-minute walk on a trail can improve your mood and energy. Some of my local favorites are Radnor Lake, Bicentennial Park, and Smith Park.

Consider light therapy: For those with SAD like me, light therapy may be useful. Many therapists recommend using a light box that emits 10,000 lux (a measurement of light strength) to use when you awake each morning. 

The bright light stimulates cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, which controls the circadian rhythm. I use my “happy light” in the mornings while reading or writing for about 30 minutes, shining it on the side of my face. 

For me, the increase in energy is noticeable. Consult your doctor or therapist before beginning, as those with certain conditions might experience issues.

Spend time engaged in spirituality: As a Christian, I spend some time each morning praying, reading and meditating on the Bible. 

Harrell says if you have a spiritual side, it can be especially helpful to embrace it. 

“That’s maybe one of the things you can do, even with COVID restrictions,” she says. 

Try adding a daily meditation practice or checking out books that make you think more deeply about your faith. The Williamson County Public Library even has curbside service.

Embrace the volunteer spirit: When I’m caught up in self-pity, I’ve found that helping others gives me perspective and a sense of gratitude. 

“Volunteering is a great way to not only help the fellow man, but to improve your mood and get you out of your head,” Harrell says. 

You don’t have to look far to find people in need of support right now. You might start with your local community or faith group. Volunteer opportunities abound with local charities such as GraceWorks and One Gen Away, and you can find more through Hands on Nashville. 

Brooke Wanser is a freelance reporter for the Williamson Herald and a co-founder of Cards of Care.

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