Milwaukee Magazine | The Holiday Mental Health Roundtable

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We spoke with three local experts about strategies for dealing with common challenges during this season.

What mental health issues develop, or worsen, during the holiday season? Kevin Kane: Mistletoe, holly, and boatloads of stress. The holidays bring family and friends together, but along with that can come increased stress, anxiety and sometimes even worsening depression. Family gatherings can bring stress from expectations we feel to make everything perfect, from conflict, or from worries about expenses. For people who have lost a loved one, the holidays may trigger grief or sadness. Melissa Nelson: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of people report an increase in mental health symptoms during the holidays. Increased stress can be attributed to several things: to-do lists that never seem to end, overspending, or just trying to find that perfect gift. Depressive feelings can escalate, as well. Beyond the fact that there is less sunlight, which decreases serotonin – our feel-good hormone – the end of the year can increase feelings of failure or inadequacy. Kristin Belkofer: Anxiety, depression and stress tend to become elevated. An example of this might be increased irritability that could be related to fatigue and low motivation from depression Another big issue is grief and loss. This could be a death, a divorce or even empty-nesters who miss the sense of community when their kids were home. People who struggle with isolation often have a hard time during the holidays because there’s such an emphasis on togetherness. 110 |

Could you share a few strategies people can employ to address and avoid these issues? Melissa Nelson: Sometimes we just need to remember the basics – make sure you are getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, eating balanced meals and getting some sun! If getting actual sunlight is a struggle, using a lightbox every day can help. And remember that if there are events or activities that are just too much, declining invites is OK. If you need it, give yourself space to grieve. It's completely understandable that the holidays will bring people you’ve lost to mind. Rather than ignoring or invalidating these thoughts, allow yourself to acknowledge and embrace their memory. KB: Don’t overschedule. Just because something fits on your calendar does not mean that it needs to happen. Instead of having one big to-do list, think about breaking it into three sections – work, life and social connection – and make sure to keep those tasks balanced and realistic, if possible. Connecting with others is how we regulate our emotions – it’s literally how our nervous system knows that we’re safe. I recommend finding something you feel passionate about and connecting with others over that. For example, volunteering at a food pantry and seeing the impact your kindness has on others. Megan Sloan: For people worried about stress from entertaining or expenses, remember that time spent together is the

Kevin Kane, MD Founder, Owner, Edelica Health Megan Sloan, PMHNP Nurse Practitioner, Edelica Health Melissa Nelson, LCSW, CSAS Therapist, Relief Mental Health

most important thing. Ask everyone to bring a dish to cut expenses and stress. Consider homemade gifts, which can have even more meaning than expensive gifts. For people struggling due to loss, consider healthy ways to occupy your mind. Be creative with new traditions like having a Friendsgiving, or volunteering with a church or at a shelter.   If you’re worried a loved one may be struggling, how can you help? MS: If a loved one is struggling, it is important not to minimize their feelings. Spend time with them, be patient and offer to help. Let them express their feelings and let them know that you are there for them. KB: I think here in the polite Midwest, there’s still a strong culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to mental health that needs to change. One branch of our practice is called the Wisdom Collective. The idea is to bring therapeutic work into larger spaces like workplaces and schools, and offer ways to educate and talk about mental health at that communal level. MN: When someone is struggling with depression, it can be easy to sink into it. Clearly communicating that you want their company can make them feel loved and needed. But be mindful that you’re not adding more pressure or being overbearing. Seeking professional support may be necessary. A therapist can help address and manage mental health symptoms. ◆


The Holiday Mental Health Roundtable

Kristin Belkofer, MS, LPC Founder, Clinical Director and Psychotherapist, Clara Healing Institute

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