Handling Holiday Stress

Even with the typically joyful holiday season upon us, it’s not uncommon for people to feel depressed. The cold, dark days of winter, and the social distancing and movement restrictions brought about by COVID-19 may only add to their sadness. Mental health experts across DOD encourage those struggling to practice positive behaviors and, if feelings become overwhelming, to reach out for help.

SEMBACH, Germany – The typically joyful holiday season can be the opposite for some individuals. Feelings of sadness are fueled by the cold, dark days of winter, being apart from family, and now the social distancing and movement restrictions brought about by COVID-19.

There are things people can do to improve their outlook and alleviate symptoms of depression, according to mental health experts with Regional Health Command Europe.

“For starters, I recommend limiting exposure to social media, the internet and the news,” offered Lt. Col. Emile Wijnans, director of Psychological Health for RHCE. “You can alleviate stress by focusing on things that are positive in your life right now, and on things you can control. Don’t worry about things you cannot control. It is really wasted energy and can lead to feeling more anxious and down.

“It’s important to get good, solid rest, eat well, maintain hobbies and exercise regularly,” he further advised. “If you do this daily or multiple times per week, common winter blahs and COVID-related anxiety will lessen and spring will be here before you know it. Most of us know this, but we tend to fall short for the same reason 9-out-of-10 New Year’s resolutions don’t happen. We fail to create daily practices to get after our goals.”

It also is recommended by health experts that individuals stick to a routine, take time throughout the day to sit back and regain perspective on things, and by all means, avoid relying on tobacco and alcohol products.

People feeling down and sluggish during the dark days of winter might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, according to Dr. Cheryl Owen, regional manager for Substance Use Disorder Clinical Care and a member of the Behavioral Health team at RHCE.

“People with seasonal depression have the same symptoms as others with that condition: feeling depressed most of the day … a lack of pleasure or interest in things they would normally enjoy, and difficulty concentrating,” Owen said.

“It is helpful to think of the hibernation period of a bear when trying to understandthe symptoms,” she further noted. “People tend to have less energy, are tired and have a greater need for sleep. They are hungrier and crave carbohydrates resulting in weight gain, and they have an increased desire to be alone.”

Owen recommended several tips to alleviate SAD and feel better throughout the winter months and changing seasons.

“Spend some time outside each day, even when it’s cloudy,” she said. “Certainly, if the sun pops out, go grab it. Also think of the performance triad. Stick to a regular sleep schedule, eat healthy and exercise at least 30 minutes per workout five times a week. This can help people avoid these symptoms.”

Health experts say it’s common for people to feel blue sometimes, but when those episodes become more frequent and too much to handle alone, there are resources available to help.

“If you experience ongoing depressive symptoms, take care and do something for yourself,” Owen encouraged. “Make an appointment with your primary care physician. It could be as simple as adding vitamins to your daily intake. Your doctor can help you figure it out. If you don’t believe it’s related to the seasonal changes, you should make an appointment with a behavioral health provider. If you have thoughts of killing yourself, please don’t keep it to yourself. People can and will help. You can tell someone you trust, go to a local hospital or behavioral health clinic, or call the military crisis line.”

That phone number in the U.S. is 1-800-273-8255.

How does one know if they are suffering from depression and mental stress or just the blues?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, common signs of mental distress include: feelings of numbness, disbelief, anxiety or fear; changes in appetite, energy, and activity levels; difficulty concentrating; difficulty sleeping or nightmares and upsetting thoughts and images; physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems and skin rashes; worsening of chronic health problems; anger or short-temper; and increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.

“If someone is drinking heavily, it can suppress their immune system,” Owen said. “We also know that people who drink often smoke as well, and that increases their risk of respiratory illness. The other issue is that drinking can dampen your mood, so if you’re already stressed out, it’s not going to help at all.”

Medical experts also know that isolation and stress can create unnecessary friction points for married couples, those with children and other relationships.

“Everyone will have moments when they will not be at their best,” Wijnans said. “A lot of cooped-up time can bring out the worst in any of us. It’s important to not hold grudges that needlessly prolong disagreements. Focus on why your partner and children are important to you, strengthen the connection, and remember that most of us, most of the time, are doing the best we can in a difficult situation.”

Psychologists and other healthcare professionals encourage individuals to reach out for help if needed. It is more a sign of strength and sensibility than anything else. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to a close friend or family member, health worker or counselor. Sharing concerns and worries often lessens the weight. Make a plan of where to go and how to seek help for physical and mental health needs if required.

(Editor’s Note: Team Lee members struggling with feelings of sadness or depression have a wide range of supporters they can reach out to day or night and throughout the holidays. They include the unit ministry team – call 804-734-1584 to be put in contact with the on-call chaplain. The Employee Assistance Program – 804-931-5111 – is available to Soldiers, civilians, retirees and their family members. Behavioral Health appointments for Tricare beneficiaries can be arranged at 804-734-9623. Reach out to a battle buddy or the chain of command. Get help. You are not alone.)