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Mental Health and the Holidays

Focus on self-care.

From the highly evidenced-based field of psychodynamic and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, we have known for decades that the holidays in America are traditionally a time ripe for off-the-chart stressors and wide-spread emotional regression.

For those already challenged with health problems, or conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries or chronic pain, the additional stress of the holidays can quickly become overwhelming. Many of these conditions involve heightened stress vulnerability, meaning that a weakened capacity to cope with stress is already in place. What is required is an even more conscious effort to manage stress in order to remain buoyant during these festive times that invite regression on multiple levels.

Caregivers and mental health professionals are also vulnerable to increased pressures this time of year, dealing with a blizzard of regressive forces from patients, relatives, co-workers, and friends. Frequently, when it seems the snow could not possibly get any deeper, surprise stressors erupt from unexpected administrative, legal or business vectors. ‘When it rains, it pours.’ Caregivers need to remember they cannot care optimally for others unless they first care for themselves. Our patients deserve our very best which requires us first to give ourselves the best we have to offer.

From my perspective, the mental health needs of the world seem to be mounting, and there are seemingly fewer resources available to meet these demands. Mental health professionals must be ever more mindful of maintaining self-care routines. It is both tragic and oddly amusing that from what I hear the wait to get an initial appointment with many psychiatrists is often three or four months. But remember there is always the hospital emergency department, 24/7.

I expect mental health demands will continue to escalate with fewer resources. There is increasing talk of supposed evidence-based, manualized treatments that are little more than band-aids applied to deep wounds that go unaddressed. Mounting insurance premiums, greater deductibles and increased out of pocket limits, means conditions favorable to the decreased physical and mental health of our nation. This means more demands on the limited number of mental health professionals still standing, resulting in an increased risk of burn-out, compassion fatigue and the development of stress-related conditions for those psychotherapists.

For me, the cornerstone of survival is to always focus on self-care. Mediation, exercise, getting as much rest as possible, setting realistic short-term goals are my reliable, go-to coping tools. Also, orchestrating brief episodes of positive interactions with family and friends, if possible, can foster a sense of greater control and resilience.

This is also a time of year to chart out the significant long-term goals for the coming year. Looking ahead to the big projects that will really make a positive difference in your life generates inner momentum and self-guidance. And always remember to simplify, simplify, simplify. It is a good time to go through and throw away or give away all the crap that you don’t need any longer. Remember the perennial wisdom of ‘less is more.’ Focus on the activities that give your life the most meaning and cut out the rest. Remember to keep your financial house as stress-free as possible and manage your gift-giving responsibly. Sometimes a quick vacation away from everything and everyone is the re-charge you need and just what the doctor ordered.

Here’s to your happy and safe holiday season and another year of not only surviving but thriving! Make it the best year yet.

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