8 tips to manage your mental health over the holidays

Friday, December 18, 2020 - 2:31pm
Rahul Kalvapalle

The holidays can be a stressful time of year at the best of times. But this year’s festive season is shaping up to be more challenging than usual due to COVID-19.

With many parts of the country returning to lockdown, this year’s festive season will be different for many Canadians – and University of Toronto students, faculty and staff are no exception.

 In most places, large family dinners, gatherings and holiday parties will be ruled out due to public health restrictions that are aimed at promoting physical distancing and curbing the spread of the virus.

Yet, experts from U of T and elsewhere say there are still many things you can do to find balance and care for your mental well-being over the holidays. Here are just a few tips:


Exercise

Physical health and fitness can have a significant impact on your mental health, so don’t wait to make a New Year’s resolution to get started.

There’s a wide variety of workouts that you can do at home with no equipment needed other than just your body’s weight. Dumbbells and workout bands are also great options if you want to introduce some resistance into your work out.

U of T’s Sport & Recreation division has made a series of workout videos, dubbed MoveU Anywhere!, that provides tips on quick, high-intensity workouts and YouTube abounds with hundreds of home workout videos to suit every strength and skill level.

If you’re in the Toronto region, you can look to take advantage of the city’s skating rinks, recreational trails, toboggan hills, snowshoeing loops and parks to get some outdoor exercise.

Get some fresh air

Experts recommend trying to get outside for fresh air at least once a day to avoid feeling cooped up, clear your head and find some mental balance.

To make it easier to maintain physical distancing, try heading out first thing in the morning or late in the evening – or use less busy streets and trails.

Connect with others remotely

While physical distancing continues to be of the utmost importance heading into the holiday season, there are still ways that you can maintain social connections with friends and family who aren’t in your household or bubble.

Zoom or Skype calls, virtual dinners, online games and even old-fashioned phone calls are a great way to stay connected and check in on one another.

In the lead-up to Thanksgiving and reading week, Vivek Goel, a renowned public health expert and a special adviser to U of T’s  president and provost who is helping guide the university’s pandemic response, offered tips on how to stay connected with family – tips that still apply over the winter holiday season.

“You don’t have to be in the same room. It's time to be creative. There are family games you can do together online using different technologies. You can still do many of the things you're used to doing,” Goel said. “Of course, it’s not going to be exactly the same, but we need to explore other ways of interacting with each other for everyone’s benefit.”

Set healthy boundaries

The holiday season can sometimes bring unwanted obligations such as having to spend time with friends, family or co-workers who you’d rather avoid.

The pandemic has the potential to add another level of holiday awkwardness, as some people may choose to dismiss health guidelines, which, in turn, could you put you or your loved ones at risk. So, set and clearly communicate boundaries with others that are necessary for you to ensure your physical and mental health. Be polite, but firm – people’s lives depend on it.

Maintain a deliberate self-care routine

Rather than just occasionally take the time to relax or take care of yourself, make self-care a deliberate and consistent part of your daily routine.

Whether it’s doing things like exercise, yoga or meditation, cooking and eating healthy meals, indulging in a creative project or simply doing a hobby that you love, making self-care a part of your day-to-day life is always good advice – but it is particularly important during the pandemic when unfamiliar pressures and stresses abound.

For inspiration, take a look at the #UofTHoliday Checklist. Throughout the holidays, U of T will be sharing tips for interesting activities on Twitter and encouraging members of the community to participate in scavenger hunts, movie watching, mindfulness and more.

Sleep

It’s common knowledge that sleep is vital to both your physical and mental well-being, and this is all the more important during holidays – a time when you want to recharge and relax before going back to school or work in the New Year.

Good sleep hygiene is critical to achieving a good night’s rest. In a recent episode of the video series 3Qs at the U with U of T alumna, neuroscientist and science communicator Samantha Yammine, known as “Science Sam” on social media, sleep expert David Samson from U of T Mississauga unpacked some of the key steps you can take to maintain good sleep hygiene.

“Sleep hygiene means that the environment that you're sleeping in is distraction-free. You don't want any big LCD screens blasting you with blue-wave light because blue-wave light … is going to inhibit melatonin and melatonin is the principal hormone that drives your sleep-awake regulation,” Samson said.

Acknowledge that this year was a year unlike any other

Accept and acknowledge that this has been a unique year, and that this holiday season will be unlike any that came before. But also recognize that this, too, will pass – things will get better.

Openness to and awareness of the reality of life amid a pandemic can be helpful to overcoming it psychologically, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioural Science.

It’s also helpful to remind yourself that the situation is temporary, and that there’s light at the end of the tunnel as countries around the world, including Canada, begin the process of vaccinating their citizens.

“In the end, there will be some type of solution. We will get some life back, of course,” said Janet Ellis, an assistant professor in U of T’s department of psychiatry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, in a recent conversation with U of T News. “For young people, perhaps more than older people, this must have seemed endless. And saying, ‘Hang on for another six months’ may seem equally endless. But, of course, we can all hang on and we're going to come through this. It’s going to be part of our shared history.”

Seek help if you need it

If you find yourself struggling and in need of help, talk to a family member or a trusted friend or reach out to a mental health professional to get the help you need.

U of T offers an array of mental health services and supports, many of which can be delivered remotely. If you’re not sure of who to reach out to, a great place to start is the Student Mental Health Resource.