New traditions may keep the holiday blues at bay

By Maya Bell

New traditions may keep the holiday blues at bay

By Maya Bell
Experts say creativity and kindness can help make the most of this challenging holiday season.

Even in the best of times, holidays can be stressful, anxiety-producing affairs. Amid joy, there is often sadness and loneliness. Add a global pandemic that will put a damper on family gatherings and treasured traditions, and the next few weeks could deepen the mental health crisis gripping the nation.

But with the right mindset and a dose of creativity and kindness, University of Miami experts said, the holidays could provide some unexpected solace. They could help us start new traditions that remind us what the season is really about and bring comfort to those who need it most.

Orlando and Jill
Orlando Gonzalez and Jill Ehrenreich-May

Orlando Gonzalez, director of the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, and Jill Ehrenreich-May, professor of psychology and director of the Child and Adolescent Mood and Anxiety Treatment Program, offer the following tips.

Approach the holidays as a blank slate

“This season challenges us to ask, ‘How can I get creative about the way I express what I think is important about the holidays? If it’s about joy, if it’s about peace, if it’s about love or staying connected, how can I express that?’ ’’ Gonzalez said. “We have the opportunity to approach the season like a blank slate and to create new traditions that put what you think the holidays are all about into action.”

That could be by volunteering in some safe capacity or simply calling a relative or acquaintance who is alone. “Frequently people say, ‘Well, I sent a card; I don’t need to make a phone call, ’ ’’ Gonzalez said. “This is the year to begin taking that extra step. Remember the holidays are not all about gifts. They’re about helping people feel connected, loved, and appreciated.”

Keep things in perspective

While Ehrenreich-May’s own research confirms that many people are experiencing increased levels of anxiety, sadness, or anhedonia—the feeling that things aren’t fun anymore—she reminds us to look to the horizon.

“The holiday season in general is short, and we’ve got to keep the broader context and the longer-term perspective in mind,” she said. “Think about the things that are happening now, like the vaccines, that give us hope for the future. Remind yourself that, right now, things are really hard but there are a lot of signs that next year will be better. Sometimes, we also just need to accept that things are difficult and be grateful for what we do have.”

And it’s a scientific fact that expressing gratitude has its own rewards. “It has a biophysiological response on your body that basically recruits mood elevators,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a kind of antidepressive effect. It lifts a person’s mood.”

 Be extra kind to yourself

 Even if you’re not working during the holidays, your time off won’t be normal, especially if you’re used to traveling or using your holidays to refresh or relax in your “happy place.” So, Ehrenreich-May urges us to be extra kind to ourselves. “You actually have to take a break to have a break,” she said. “Pour yourself a cup of tea. Take a walk. Do something safe outside. Do something that makes you feel good.”

Give your children a break, too. Maintain some structure for their health and well-being but be flexible without trying to make up for everything they’re missing.

“Don’t try to make up for the fact that we’re not traveling or visiting grandma and grandpa this time of year. But do something fun, something different,” Ehrenreich-May said. “If you didn’t get to go to Japan, have a Japanese meal in your living room. You can still make new memories that are special.”

 Remember that help is available

Although limited mental health services and resources can’t meet every need, Ehrenreich-May noted that the pandemic has made them more accessible. “One of the few good things is how many services have transitioned to virtual and, at some level, will stay that way, so people who do need care can access it online or through telehealth,” she said. “Excellent emotional health support is available to those who need it during the holiday season and beyond.”

Employees can reach the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program next week through Dec. 23, and again on Dec. 29 and 30 at UMFSAP@miami.edu or 305-284-6604. The office will resume full services on Jan. 4. Help is also available around the clock at Miami-Dade County and Broward County’s Help Line at 211. To find a therapist or treatment facility in the Aetna network, contact Carisk Behavioral Health at 800-294-8642.