Many UA students who struggle with mental health disorders are preparing to cope with the additional stresses presented by celebrating the holidays during a global pandemic.
Twenty-four percent of respondents to a 2014 survey with a diagnosed mental illness said that the holidays make their condition a lot worse and 20% said that their condition becomes somewhat worse, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Cadi Stair, a senior from Springdale, said the holidays tend to exacerbate her mental health struggles because they remind her of the absence of her dad and grandparents, who died when she was younger. Stair often feels blindsided by renewed grief and longing, and the lack of a good support system can prompt unhealthy responses, she said.
“It’s definitely taken me a long time to cope with the holidays in healthier ways,” Stair said. “Things that have helped me are surrounding myself with those who understand and don’t try to fix something they can’t. They open their doors for holiday gatherings, be themselves and let me share when I need to.”
Seeking therapy, especially during the busy holiday season, has been one of the best things for Stair’s mental health, she said. Her therapist provides her with an objective and professional opinion that she would not receive otherwise.
Many people experience extra stress during the holidays because of the societal expectation that they must be in good spirits, said Michael Hollomon, a retired psychiatrist from Fayetteville. Some struggle to feel the “magic” of the season amid personal challenges such as family tension and economic hardship.
For many, there are numerous additional tasks to complete during the holidays, such as buying gifts, decorating the home, preparing elaborate meals and sending out cards. This year, these potential stressors may be compounded by encouragement to stay home and avoid large gatherings, Hollomon said.
“Some of the biggest triggers are going to be traditions that we can’t observe,” Hollomon said. “That may be church services or meals with a large group of extended families or the many holiday parties. It would be most important (this year) to focus on what we have rather than what we do not.”
Wendy Stewart, a senior from Fayetteville, plans to spend Christmas at her parents’s house, but she might Zoom with them instead if she decides it is not safe enough to see them in person, she said. Stewart has always taken great joy from participating in Christmas festivities with her loved ones, so she is worried this change could negatively impact her mental health.
Stewart said she thinks the levels of stress people experience during the holidays depend on whom they are surrounded by. She is thankful to have friends and family who provide her constant support and understand that the hustle and bustle of the season can become burdensome.
“I do think the activities can become overwhelming when you’re trying to manage classes, travel home and meet with people to exchange gifts or cards,” Stewart said. “It takes a lot of planning and with a current pandemic, those meetings and events can be even more difficult.”
Before the pandemic, Stewart consistently struggled with anxiety attacks, but she has used the extra alone time to practice coping mechanisms such as breathing exercises and journaling. Now, her attacks are almost non-existent, she said. She has learned to take time for herself to recharge and deal with the negative thoughts that often stem from isolation.
An estimated 35.9% of Americans experienced symptoms related to anxiety or depression near the end of April, and that percentage rose to an estimated range of 41.8-43.4% by Nov. 23., according to a data collection survey created by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau.
Isolation experienced during quarantine can be especially triggering for some people, because humans are programmed to interact and make connections with others, Hollomon said. He thinks finding new ways to practice holiday traditions safely could help curb some of the negative effects the pandemic is having on people’s mental health during this holiday season.
“Christmas holidays are supposed to be magical and happy and perfect,” Hollomon said. “That is not always the case, but we get many messages that we need to make it so. In the end, (people should) try to focus on what this season means to (them) and make it more meaningful.”