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Christmas is like a magnifying mirror – a season full of emotional intensity, a time that takes our existing states of mind and amplifies them in a unique way. If we’re happy and fulfilled, it can be a period of beauty, excitement and enjoyment. If we’re depressed, stressed or lonely, these feelings can become dangerously overwhelming.

As Canada’s COVID-19 case counts rise exponentially, Christmas is a poignant reminder of just how much our world has changed, and how far we still are from anything that resembles “normal”. With a four-week period of new restrictions on gatherings and dining out just issued by the Alberta government, it’s guaranteed that for most of us, that this Christmas will be unlike anything we’ve seen before, with a void where office parties, evenings out and big family celebrations would usually be.

Like many of you, I’ve experienced my share of both sides of the holidays. I have treasured memories of happy family celebrations during good times as well as plenty of challenging and stressful years. After the passing of my beloved father, I would flow over with sadness hearing songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, and December 26th felt like it couldn’t come fast enough. With the addition of financial stresses and severe illness, some of my darkest moments have been during the holidays, when not being merry and cheerful can feel like a personal failure.

“I found that with depression, one of the most important things
you could realize is that you’re not alone.”

Dwayne Johnson

This year, so many of us are experiencing loss, financial uncertainty and separation from the ones we love, and our mental health will feel the impact. Nationally, our minds and hearts are already under tremendous strain, especially the most vulnerable.

According to a new study by the Canadian Mental Health Association and the University of British Columbia, 40% of Canadians surveyed said that their mental health had deteriorated since the pandemic began – a number that leapt to 61% for people with pre-existing issues.

Most frightening, the study found that the number of Canadians having thoughts of suicide has quadrupled. Driven by factors like employment dissatisfaction, heavy debt and social isolation, we are experiencing a tsunami of mental health challenges that are hitting seniors, women and economically disadvantaged groups the hardest. Christmas, with its pressures and stresses, will no doubt add to these statistics.

As someone who has struggled with life-long anxiety and depression, my heart goes out to all of the people who are dreading Christmas this year, and all of the families who will be feeling the pain of missing their loved ones. However, we’ve all already endured so much over the past 9 months, and I have faith that we can support each other, even from a safe distance, in getting through 2020’s strange and challenging holiday season.

In my journey towards mental health, I was fortunate to have the support of some wise and empathetic professionals who taught me essential skills and changes of mindset that helped me through some of my most difficult holiday periods. While we each have our own experiences and needs, I wanted to share some of the ideas and strategies that gave me comfort and helped me see a path towards a brighter future – something that after 9 months of turmoil, we all need deeply right now.

“If you feel ‘burnout’ setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for
the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself.”

Dalai Lama

Remove the Pressure

One of the greatest challenges to mental health during the holidays is the incredible amount of pressure to live up to expectations around what Christmas *should* be like. It’s hard not to compare ourselves to the seemingly perfect, smiling families we’re inundated with on social media and television, and a game-changing realization for me that I didn’t have to live up to any preconceived expectations. Not being happy at Christmas is not a failure – and there is no pressure to have Instagram-worthy décor or overextend financially.

Stay Connected

The move to remote work has created a massive adoption of technological ways of staying connected – just like programs like Zoom have brought our colleagues into our living rooms, they’re an invaluable way of keeping our loved ones close. There is something so powerful about being able to bring a large group together and seeing the nuances of facial expressions and smiles – I get so much positive energy out of meeting with friends and family online, and it can be an amazing way for older family members to combat the psychological effects of isolation.

Practice Self-Care

Self care means being loving towards our bodies, minds and spirits, and making sure that we give ourselves what we need to rest, heal and stay healthy. Christmas is often a time where we focus so much on other people that we can neglect our own needs, and this can result in burnout, fatigue and a compromised immune system at a time when we need our health the most. Giving your own needs priority and taking time away from work, the endless news cycle and daily tasks not only helps you, but puts you in a better position to support those around you.

Seek Help

One of the biggest tragedies of mental health issues is that so often, people feel ashamed of needing help. As someone who was always seen as the strong person in my family who held everything together, I used to be reluctant to admit that I needed help of any kind – until one year, the combined stress of carrying the weight of both my tech company and family left me in the hospital with a life-threatening illness. It’s time to respect and embrace our limitations as the things that make us human, and know when it’s time to reach for others – family, friends and professionals – for the help we need and deserve.

With the new restrictions on in-person gatherings, it’s so urgent that we take care of both ourselves others right now. I want to encourage everyone to think of those people in our lives who might be experiencing isolation or mental health challenges and reach out – even a brief message just to let them know that someone cares. If that person is you, please know that you are not alone, and there is help out there (some resources are linked below) to give you the support you need to get through this incredibly difficult time. Let’s keep working to find ways to de-stress and stay connected through our Coronavirus Christmas, and look forward to reuniting safely in 2021.

“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

Judy Garland, Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas

Mental Health Resources

Togetherall Peer-to-Peer Support
Distress Centre Hotline
Mental Health Helpline
Find a Counsellor or Therapist