POV: you’re a parent caring for your kids while also caring for your aging parents. Throw in the chaos of the holidays and you’re just one more class party task, grocery delivery request or gift-wrapping fiasco away from running screaming into the (holiday light arrayed) night.
While the holiday season is intended to spark joy, it often transforms into a stress-laden ordeal for caregivers juggling the needs of both children and aging parents. In fact, this is a prime time for depressive symptoms, especially among this audience.
We spoke with Karen Orsi, director of the Oklahoma Mental Health & Aging Coalition, to get her top tips for caregivers to prioritize your own mental health so you can continue to care for your loved ones, too.
1. Recognize the signs of struggle.
Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, fatigue or disruptions in sleep may indicate more than typical holiday stress. Acknowledge these symptoms and recognize when they impact your daily life. Don’t forget that the winter blues, due to the change in weather and additional hours of darkness, can have big implications for our moods this time of year.
“When we have less exposure to light, this creates changes in our brain, so people may feel down,” explains Orsi. “This can lead to depression or seasonal affective disorder. Focus on good sleep, taking walks to get outside and enjoy the sunshine and taking care of yourself.”
2. Seek professional help when needed.
Orsi shares that 1 in 4 people will have a mental health disorder in their lifetime. When those persistent feelings go on for a period of two weeks or more and impact your sleep, relationships or your ability to take care of yourself or others, it’s time to seek professional help.
“There’s nothing wrong with not feeling OK,” said Orsi. “It’s very important to recognize that and then do something about it. When we have a sore throat, we go to the doctor. We need to do the same when we’re sad or depressed for an extended time.”
Help is available 24/7 by calling or texting 988, Oklahoma’s Mental Health Lifeline. Certified specialists will provide the resources and listening ear you need.
“988 is for everybody,” said Orsi. “If you’re feeling sad, lonely or like you might harm yourself — or if you’re afraid someone you love is feeling that way — the system is set up so that, many times, these issues can be handled over the phone. Or a team can even come to you to help.”
3. Balance your media exposure.
We are all inundated with distressing news throughout our days, which can lead to high levels of stress and fear. Orsi advises parents not ignore the news of the day but instead consume only what is needed and then step away. When you feel stressed or alarmed about issues going on in your community or around the world, focus on what you can control.
“We often feel helpless, perhaps about politics, the economy, war or Covid,” said Orsi. “Acknowledge those feelings and then determine how to make sense of that fear and what you can do to help. If you’re worried about the economy, seek financial planning help. If you’re worried about bombings or war, find out how to support the people impacted in a meaningful way.”
4. Practice gratitude.
Counter negative thoughts and stress with mindfulness. Reflect on positive memories and name what you’re feeling thankful for during this season.
“When we’re anxious or depressed, we often go to negative thoughts or the worst thing that can happen,” explains Orsi. “And the holidays can trigger a lot of stress, especially about those people who are no longer at the table.”
Validate those feelings, remember the positive times spent with the loved ones you’re missing and acknowledge what you’re grateful for now.
5. Maintain a routine and find ways to boost your mood.
As much as you can, eat well, maintain good sleep and get exercise.
“Another tried and true way to reduce depressive symptoms is to find something you are excited about doing and do it!” advises Orsi. “Or if you love a person with depressive symptoms, help them figure out something they want to do and help them do it. This actually has a long-term impact because one week you’re planning the activity, the next week you’re looking forward to it and then after the event you’re talking about how much you enjoyed it. That’s almost a whole month someone’s mood can be improved.”
Incorporate regular self-care practices like getting outdoors, journaling or breathing exercises. Painting or listening to music can enhance your mood as well. Find ways to give to others, which could mean volunteering your time for a local cause or could be as simple as offering a smile or compliment. Stay connected to your social circles and help the older adults in your life do the same. These activities don’t need to be lengthy and can be tailored to fit your busy holiday schedule; even a few minutes a day can boost your well-being.
6. Seek ways to reduce your mental load.
During the holiday season in particular, it’s critical to prioritize tasks, delegate responsibilities and set realistic expectations. Embrace a self-compassionate approach to holiday planning by understanding your limits and setting boundaries, with yourself and others.
“We all have so many things we want to do and accomplish because we don’t want to disappoint others, but we end up disappointing ourselves because we’re exhausted,” said Orsi. “We may make the holidays wonderful for everyone else, but you can’t even enjoy them because you’re worn out.”
Validate your feelings about what you can and can’t reasonably get done this holiday season. Instead of making the entire holiday dinner yourself, ask others to contribute. Instead of purchasing all new holiday decor, choose one item you’d like to add. Rather than buying gifts for everyone in your extended family, consider drawing names.
With these tips in mind, caregivers can navigate the holidays with resilience and prioritize both your own well-being and the well-being of those you care for. Remember that it’s OK not to feel OK, and taking proactive steps to care for your own mental health is a crucial first step in caring for others.
This article is part of a 10-month series with 988 Mental Health Lifeline. Find the full series at metrofamilymagazine.com/mental-health.