By Daun Baker, Ph.D., director of psychological services, Amwell Medical Group
As the holiday season continues and we transition from the late fall to winter months, many of us experience a range of emotions that can significantly impact our mental health.
This time of year, often synonymous with family gatherings, social events and gift-giving, can bring about greater levels of stress, anxiety and emotional pain, as well as a sense of loss. Shorter days and colder weather can compound feelings of loneliness and social isolation. And, though the pandemic is over, many of us continue to feel the lingering effects COVID has had on our physical and mental health.
For a season that many equate with joy, it’s also a time of year where it’s necessary to have access to behavioral health support services.
Lower temps, higher stress
Increasingly, Americans say they’re stressed, and the faster pace, lack of routine and demands of the holiday season can add to these feelings.
The American Psychological Association’s recent report, “Stress in America 2023,” revealed some alarming statistics on our feelings about stress and our unwillingness to talk about these emotions:
“…When it comes to stress management, many are struggling to cope and are bearing the burden alone. Around three in five adults (62%) said they don’t talk about their stress overall because they don’t want to burden others.”
In addition, the financial pressures to make holiday purchases can exacerbate negative feelings. A 2021 poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that 2 in 5 adults were worried about affording holiday gifts (46%). In addition, 61% of moms and 47% of dads felt stressed about the financial burden associated with the holidays.
Along with anxiety, many of us also experience seasonal “blues.” According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), the holiday blues are temporary feelings of anxiety or depression during the winter months that can be associated with extra stress, unrealistic expectations or even painful memories.
While feeling blue this time of year isn’t the same as mental illness, it’s essential to take these symptoms seriously so they don’t evolve into something more severe, such as clinical depression or anxiety.
Mental health care without boundaries
We can mitigate holiday stress by taking simple steps such as maintaining healthy habits, making time for ourselves, focusing on the things we can control, and, if needed, seeking professional help.
Personal strategies to improve our well-being this time of year might include:
Getting the right amount of sleep and physical activity
Keeping a normal routine – or close to it
Taking breaks from work projects, the news and social media
Asking for additional help from co-workers, friends and loved ones
If seasonal stress starts to overwhelm, it’s time to seek professional assistance by making an appointment with a mental health professional or primary care physician.
Unfortunately, finding the right – or any – provider may add to our feelings of stress. In 2022, more than 150 million Americans lived in a federally designated mental health professional shortage area. There aren’t enough behavioral health professionals in the U.S. to meet the demand in certain areas. Fortunately, there’s a way for those who need support to access it regardless of where they live. With a clinically validated behavioral health program, those needing mental health care can access online programs, live virtual counseling, chat-based tools, interactive videos and other resources – without delay.
Putting employers and health plans to work
Each year, mental health service providers see more demand for support during the holidays and colder months. In 2022, the highest number of contacts to the national 988 crisis line came during December.
Data like this underscores the importance of fostering awareness, assistance and understanding in our workplaces, communities and other social groups. Employers and health plans can play a pivotal role during this time by acknowledging the season’s challenges.
Initiating open discussions, educating employees on available benefits and creating supportive environments are crucial steps employers and health plans can take to help people manage their mental health.
But offering a comprehensive benefits package that includes behavioral health care is also important.
A recent Amwell survey found that 40% of respondents said they want their employer or health plan to give access to online mental health programs that they can access at any time. Additionally, 53% of respondents said they want access to online resources and digital programs to self-manage their mental health.
These online programs, live virtual counseling, and chat-based solutions work to meet a spectrum of behavioral health needs without delay.
Keeping our mental health in check
Along with feelings of joy, the holidays can spark mental health challenges, emotional pain and a sense of loss. Whether it’s social pressure, darker days, financial concerns or lack of routine, it’s essential to have behavioral health support accessible during the late fall and winter months. With the right personal strategies and comprehensive mental health benefits, we can better manage the range of emotions that may accompany this celebratory time of year.