When Christmas Isn't Merry: A Therapist On Coping, Centering Gratitude
Christmas Day can be difficult for many, even when we aren’t in the grips of a worldwide pandemic.
WFPL’s Kate Howard talked with Laurel Sims-Stewart, a licensed professional counselor at Bridge Counseling and Wellness here in Louisville, about coping strategies for people who may be struggling right now. This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
(Note: A list of resources are at the end of this article.)
This is a very difficult time of year for a lot of people, and maybe even more so this year. Are you seeing that this year in the patients you see?
Yes, definitely, we are seeing a lot more people experiencing heightened anxiety, more symptoms of depression and just feeling lonely and more stressed than usual. It's hard to be doing all of these things in a "normal" year. A lot of times the holidays are a very stressful time for people anyway. But when our community is a little bit more disconnected than we are used to, that's certainly going to make things feel more lonely, more isolating, and maybe make symptoms like depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms worse.
Given the context of this year, people may not be seeing family they normally would, not traveling. They might find themselves by themselves today. What advice do you give them to cope?
First of all, a lot of times we can find ourselves in a mindset of wanting to ignore the fact that we don't feel good. We want to push that away and pretend whether to others in our lives or to ourselves, or both, that everything is okay, and we feel fine in spite of all that's happening around us, that has been so difficult. And so my first recommendation for myself and for the other people that I talked to, is just to acknowledge how you feel in a real and honest way. It's okay to feel any feelings that might be coming up right now, even really, really difficult feelings.
The first step to dealing with those feelings is acknowledging that they're real, and that they're valid. And that's when we can start working with those and figuring out what we need to do in response to those feelings. And then the second thing, after we've named the feelings that we're having, whether to ourselves or others, or both, is to figure out what those feelings are telling us. We need feelings: they're information. They help us to identify needs. So if we're feeling sad, we might be needing comfort. If we are feeling lonely, we might be craving connection.
We can't necessarily find the comfort and connection we're used to right now, but there are opportunities to be creative. So I know we're all Zoomed out. But [connection] might look like phone calls, calling somebody that you haven't talked to in a while and letting them know that you're thinking of them. It might be a group video call. I know that that has become sort of cliche, but it is true.
A lot of times when we're feeling lonely, that can lead us to have the urge to isolate. But we might find that when we actually do get on that call with others, it does help. We do feel a little bit better afterwards, because we are social creatures who are wired for connection. And so even that connection can help us move through the difficult time. It might not be the true connection that we really, really are longing for, but it can help us move through this time to get to the other side. If we're searching for comfort, maybe that's being creative with how we can comfort ourselves: making our favorite meal, or watching a movie or a show that is familiar. It could be doing something for yourself that you normally don't have time to do, or that normally you wouldn't be able to do this time of year because everybody's focused on all these holiday-themed things. And make that your comfort in that sadness.
There are some people whose family has passed on or don't feel they have people close to them in their lives. Are there options for them to find connections?
Yeah, certainly I would say there are options. One, one really thing that I think we forget about especially now is just finding space to volunteer. We know that giving back is one way that we can find connection... it actually can decrease feelings of loneliness and anxiety and depression. So it could be a monetary; if you have the funds, trying to go online and research organizations that fit with your values and making a contribution, knowing that you're making a difference. If it's not an option , find organizations that are looking for virtual volunteers. Maybe it's reading stories to kids over Zoom or having a video call with a resident in a nursing home that doesn't have a lot of people to talk to. There are lots of different ways other organizations are getting creative to help the people that they serve. And they're always looking for volunteers, even if it's not in person right now. .
So the the other thing that I think is really important, which can sometimes be interpreted as sort of trite, is just taking a moment to tune into your gratitude -- even if the things that you can be grateful for in that moment are the breath in your lungs and the fact that you're here in this space, and you're moving through. Focusing our brain on the things that we are grateful for helps us to move out of that space of loneliness, and maybe sadness, depression, or anxiety and into a more calm present space. And if we can move our mind into that space, it's a lot easier to cope.
And finally, the other thing that I have been thinking about a lot lately is, a lot of members of our community really rely on sober communities for connection and coping. And with the COVID-19 precautions, a lot of those in person meetings have been cancelled. And it's really important, and I want everybody to know that there are still virtual options out there. If those daily or weekly meetings are part of your support, there are plenty of options still available for you.
24/7 crisis line: 502-589-4313
Substance abuse-related support
UofL psychiatry clinic: (502) 588-4450
SMART Recovery: https://www.smartrecovery.org/community
Speaker tape websites