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Thanksgiving 2020: How to protect mental health

For most people, Thanksgiving will be very different this year. In this article, we provide 5 basic tips to help bolster our mental health before, during, and after the 2020 holiday season.

Thanksgiving is traditionally a time to share food and frolics with our nearest and dearest. For most of us, this is unlikely to be the case this year. With travel restrictions and quarantines in place, we will need to adjust.

Although the pandemic has affected everyone in different ways, there seems to be little doubt that the average mental health of the population in the United States has declined.

At a time when family and friends are normally the closest, this year, they will be farther away. Looking after our mental health in a proactive way is more important than ever as we enter the holiday season.

In this Special Feature, we will look at ways to fend off the seemingly inevitable blues of a physically distant Thanksgiving. Even without a pandemic to deal with, the holiday season brings stresses and strains, so with the added pressures this year has presented to us, we need to focus.

Right from the get-go, it is important to make it clear that nothing we provide below can fill the void or heal the anxiety that COVID-19 has produced. Perhaps, though, it might nudge the needle in the right direction. Sometimes, small steps, taken together, can produce significant benefits.

Before we dive in, here is something to bring to the forefront of your mind as often as possible over the coming days and weeks:

Each day, scientists are learning more about how SARS-CoV-2 works. Vaccines are coming. Yes, 2020 has been challenging, but, with medical research in our armory, we will defeat COVID-19.

No article on maintaining mental health would be complete without mentioning sleep. We do not give it the space that it needs in our modern, neon-lit world. We all need to do better.

Losing sleep interferes with our mood. This is intuitive, but it is also backed by research. For instance, one study concludes, “Sleep loss amplifies the negative emotive effects of disruptive events while reducing the positive effect of goal-enhancing events.”

In other words, if we do not sleep enough, we are more likely to feel negative when things go wrong, and we are less likely to feel good when they go well.

Similarly, another study found that “individuals become more impulsive and experience less positive affect after a period of short sleep.” Once again, reduced sleep duration appears to dampen mood.

At a time when the mood of the nation is at a low ebb, sleeping a little extra might be a relatively simple way to tip the scales in our favor. For advice on getting better sleep, click here.

It is worth noting, though, that the relationship between sleep and mental health is complex and two-way — mental health issues can impact sleep quality, and a lack of sleep can damage mental health.

As with sleep, any article that aims to boost mental health has to include exercise. As the temperature drops, forcing ourselves outside can become increasingly challenging. Scientists have shown that physical activity can boost mood both in the short and long term.

A review published in 2019, for instance, found a relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and the risk of common mental health disorders. Similarly, a 2018 meta-analysis concluded that “[a]vailable evidence supports the notion that physical activity can confer protection against the emergence of depression.”

Importantly, we do not need to run a 4-minute mile to gain mental benefits from exercise. A study from 2000 found that short, 10–15-minute walks boosted mood and increased calmness.

So even if it is something simple, such as dancing in your kitchen or walking your dog for a little bit longer, it all counts.

It is true that neither exercise nor sleep can replace a hug from a friend or relative, but if our mood is momentarily boosted or our overall average mood is upped, it might help us manage disappointment better and reframe this difficult year.

For many people, loneliness has already been a significant feature of 2020. Reflecting on friends and family during Thanksgiving is likely to intensify those feelings of isolation.

To combat this, make an effort to make contact. Whether it is a simple phone call or a video chat, schedule some conversations in. Remember, you are not the only one feeling lonely. If it is safe and permissible in your area, meet up with a friend somewhere outside and take a walk.

Check in with others — emails, texts, and social media can be useful in times like this. Rather than doomscrolling, send a “How are you?” to someone you miss. They likely miss you, too.

Stay occupied. Empty time can move slowly. Find a new podcast, listen to new or old songs, pick up that guitar, start drawing again, learn a new skill, or anything else. An occupied and engaged mind is less likely to dwell on the loneliness.

A recent study found that people who get involved in an enjoyable task and enter a state of flow fared better during lockdowns and quarantines. The authors write:

“Participants who reported greater flow also reported more positive emotion, less severe depressive symptoms, less loneliness, more healthy behaviors, and fewer unhealthy behaviors.”

Thanksgiving is associated in no small part with overindulgence. I don’t think it would be fair or reasonable to expect people, in 2020 of all years, to reduce their turkey intake.

With that said, there is growing evidence that what we eat impacts our mood. For instance, a recent review that appears in BMJ concludes:

“Healthy eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, are associated with better mental health than ‘unhealthy’ eating patterns, such as the Western diet.”

With this in mind, ensuring that we eat well in the lead-up to and the days following Thanksgiving could help us keep a steady mind.

While we are discussing consumption, it is worth mentioning alcohol. In the long term, alcohol increases the risk of developing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Although, at the time, alcohol might lift mood and reduce anxiety, it will not help in the long run.

Not everyone is on the same page when it comes to the pandemic. Some people might still be shielding, while others might have succumbed to “pandemic fatigue” and be returning to normal prematurely. Others still might use terms such as “scamdemic” and refuse to wear a mask.

Some family members might be pushing for a family meal, like the long distant days of 2019. Others, sensibly, might be visualizing a Zoom-based meal plan.

These differences in position have the potential to cause disappointment and additional stress. It is important to have clear and frank discussions with family members about what they can expect this year.

Remember, with any luck, next Thanksgiving will see a return to some form of normality. Hopefully, we will only have to endure this unusual and uncomfortable Thanksgiving once. If you are not comfortable with someone’s proposed plan, say “no.” And stick to your guns.

With spikes in case numbers across much of the U.S., the most sensible option is to limit human contact as much as possible.

Although laws, rules, and regulations vary between regions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have published a document outlining factors people should consider when planning get-togethers and events.

In general, gatherings with more people are risky, as are events in enclosed spaces. People can lower the risk in a number of ways, including:

  • inviting fewer people
  • meeting outdoors
  • wearing masks (unless eating)
  • remaining 6 feet (2 meters) apart
  • washing the hands frequently
  • keeping music low so that people do not need to shout
  • limiting alcohol intake

When it comes down to it, each individual has to make their own decision about how they act within the law. To protect your own mental health, make your own decision and do not allow yourself to be railroaded into doing something that you consider to be too risky.

The safest way to enjoy Thanksgiving this year, unfortunately, is to do it virtually.

Individually, the tips outlined above cannot replace the good times we expect from Thanksgiving. However, if we make more of an effort to eat right, sleep right, and move around, the cumulative effect might be enough to enjoy some benefit.

Remember, we are on the home straight. Reach out and talk to friends and family if you are feeling low. The odds are they are feeling low, too. Never be afraid to talk about your emotions. No one is having the holiday season they expected.

As many people struggle during this time, it might be hard to see an end in sight. If you are contemplating self-harm or if you know someone who is, we have a list of excellent resources here. We are in this together, and it will end.

For live updates on the latest developments regarding the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, click here.

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