The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy, but for many people the holiday season is a time of sadness and loneliness. With the isolation, health concerns and financial challenges brought by COVID-19, mental health professionals expect holiday depression to be much worse this season.
COVID-Related Stress Disorder is Very Real
“There is a greater degree and intensity of anxiety, stress and depression because of the pandemic,” says Thomas Milam, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer of Iris Telehealth.
“Those who were previously struggling with depression, anxiety and substance abuse are especially vulnerable at this time,” he says. “We don’t do well when we’re alone and suffering from depression and anxiety, so the isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19 makes depression more difficult.”
For those who have lost jobs, the pandemic’s financial strain is also contributing to stress and anxiety. “I have admitted people to the hospital who are suicidal because they are tired of the stress of COVID, and tired of the financial pressure on their family without seeing an end in sight. They feel helpless about being able to do anything about it,” Dr. Milam says.
Chronic stress makes certain health conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes, worse because of the inflammatory chemicals produced by the brain when we are stressed that circulate throughout the body.
How You Can Cope with Added Stress this Holiday Season
Dr. Milam has witnessed resilience on the part of patients and their families who have adapted to their situation. Many have been using video platforms, such as Zoom and FaceTime, to keep in touch. He notes that with the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines, there is reason for optimism that 2021 will be a better year.
In the meantime, Dr. Milam offers these tips for coping with the current impact of COVID-19 and holiday-related stress:
- It’s okay to “own” your stress. You don’t need to be stoic or pretend everything is fine. Expressing your feelings with family and friends is especially important during times like these.
- Make an effort to connect with people via phone or text to find out how they are doing.
- Don’t abandon healthy habits. Exercise helps. Take a walk outside. Do some stretching or find online classes such as yoga. Eat healthier foods, including fruit and vegetables.
- Take slow, deep breaths three times each day to increase your feelings of well-being. Also, listening to music, meditation and prayer can be helpful.
- Try to make someone else’s day brighter with a small act of kindness or a compliment. Doing something positive can help you feel better.
- Avoid excessive news and social media that increase your stress and worry.
- Be careful about alcohol use, substance abuse and long-term anti-anxiety medications. Prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs such as benzodiazepines have increased by 30 percent since the start of the pandemic. For short-term use, they are fine, but they can be habit forming when taken long-term.
- Seek professional help if needed. Symptoms of depression include lack of energy, trouble sleeping or concentrating and having little interest in things you normally enjoy. If those feelings persist for more than two weeks, it’s wise to seek help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24/7 for anyone in a suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
Tips for Helping Children
Children also may be experiencing anxiety. Symptoms include irritability, wanting to be held more than usual or having stomach discomfort or headaches.
Dr. Milam offers these tips for reducing anxiety among children:
- Encourage children to express how they’re feeling.
- Reassure them that things will be okay.
- Maintain routines and keep to everyday schedules, such as eating and going to bed at the same time.
- Communicate frequently. Text older children throughout the day, even when they are in the same house, and ask them how they’re doing.
People who need to be cared for by a psychiatrist often face challenges accessing that care due to the nationwide shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, especially in rural areas. One bright spot from the disruption caused by COVID-19 is the dramatic rise in the use of telehealth services, which increases access to medical professionals, including psychiatrists and other mental health providers.
In data published by the Telehealth Impact Physician Survey of almost 1,600 health care professionals, more than 75 percent said that telehealth enabled them to provide quality care for patients with COVID-related mental health and other health issues.
“Telepsychiatry has opened up a new way of providing care. It’s now patient-centric rather than clinic-centric, and studies indicate that patient satisfaction is high,” says Dr. Milam. He adds that providing patients with easier access to care also has reduced the number of emergency department visits for mental health issues.
At Iris Telehealth, we work to further increase behavioral health accessibility by connecting community mental health centers, community health centers, hospitals, and health systems with telepsychiatry providers. If you’re looking to speak with a psychiatrist via telemedicine, contact your primary care physician or your local health center. If you’re a health organization looking to expand your psychiatric services, reach out to us and we’ll get the conversation started.