As the holiday season’s spirit and cheer kick in, it can be hard to imagine feeling glum. But for the 3.3 million Americans suffering from anxiety — plus millions more suffering from related conditions like depression and OCD — the expectations of joy and merriment can backfire, triggering hopelessness and causing symptoms to flare. That’s because the mere thought of trying to meet these expectations can be overwhelming. People with anxiety and related mental health conditions imagine that others have found “perfection” in a special day, meal, gift or moment and that they are experiencing immense, unbridled joy.
Not experiencing this joy themselves, those suffering feel frustrated, flawed, ashamed and left out. This aggravates the symptoms of depression, anxiety and OCD. These symptoms may be even more heightened in the wake of the election. The results caught so many people off guard, leaving them unprepared to process the implications. With our entire nation now facing deep uncertainty about the direction that public policy and governance will take, and with new rifts created between family members and friends, even people who don’t suffer from mental illness are feeling anxious and unsure. The vibes may add to the existing angst of those who do suffer.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with what NPR has called the silent mental health epidemic, the individuals suffering tend not to say anything about what they’re going through — and nobody around them thinks to ask. Feeling isolated, they prefer to be alone when in fact withdrawing will only make the situation even worse, leading to a dangerous downward spiral.
But there are tools you can use to help. Following are five pointers everyone can implement to help loved ones deal with anxiety and depression.
In the frenzied lead-up to the holidays, it’s easy for all of us to forget about anything other than our own to-do list. So it’s more important than ever to intentionally think about those we know are struggling, and to be aware of the challenges this season brings them.
Don’t wait for your loved one to talk to you about what they’re experiencing. On top of feeling unwell, they may also be feeling shame at the idea of putting a damper on your good time if they open up. Start a dialogue. Mention you’ve noticed they’ve been staying in the house more often. Let them know you care.
Keep Engaging Them
Keep your loved one engaged and involved as much as they are willing to be. It will help them feel supported and included. Invite them to bake cookies, go shopping or talk a walk. Even if they refuse, it still gives them an opportunity to feel connected and to know you care.
Schedule Some Exercise
Exercise can seriously help augment difficult feelings and compulsions during the holidays. With the boost in serotonin that just a short jog can illicit, most people who are suffering are brought at least some relief. Start a weekly exercise plan with your loved one in order to prevent a severe dip in their emotional landscape.
Leave Politics at the Door
There’s the very real possibility that divisive discussions about the election results will tear through otherwise relatively calm family gatherings this year. So it’s more important than ever to agree in advance to leave politics at the door. And just in case somebody slips, come up with a game plan for dealing with political disputes, including how to navigate away — or come up for air — from tense conversations.
Maggie Lamond Simone is an award-winning columnist and author. With two titles already to her name, her third book, Body Punishment: OCD, Addiction and Finding the Courage to Heal (Central Recovery Press) was released in April 2015. It traces Simone’s journey struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression. Her writing has been featured in multiple publications and collections, including From Beer to Maternity (2009), Cosmopolitan Magazine, The Zen of Midlife Mothering (2013), Not Your Mother’s Book on Do-It-Yourselfers (2013),P.S. What I Didn’t Say (2009), and Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Resolution (2008). Simone has been a guest on NPR and is a regular blog columnist for the Huffington Post. An an adjunct professor in the department of communications at SUNY Oswego and Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, she lives in Central New York with her husband and two children.