As we approach the end of a challenging year, we can look back with a more robust understanding of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological wellbeing. Globally, research shows significant negative effects. Essential workers, young people, people who were economically impacted, and those with pre-existing conditions – including mental illness – are at higher risk of mental distress. Within New Zealand, a nationally representative survey found one third of participants reported moderate or high distress. These rates were significantly higher than baseline rates from past population surveys (2018/2019), as shown in the figure below.
Figure taken from an article by Every-Palmer S., et al. (2020) Psychological distress, anxiety, family violence, suicidality, and wellbeing in New Zealand during the COVID-19 lockdown: A cross-sectional study.
Of particular significance to this distress is health anxiety and social anxiety. For some, that may be amplified by Christmas and the New Year. With that in mind, here are some tips for coping.
Trust the current alert levels
Many people are feeling more anxious in response to reconnecting with family and friends over the holidays. This may be due to the fear of being infected, or infecting loved ones. Remember that our government is doing all it can to keep us safe, and has experts recommending how we as a country proceed. If they advise us to be at level one, that means it is safe for us to connect with loved ones.
Sharing our feelings and offering support to others builds our support systems, helps us to destress, and can make us feel better. However, one reason for some end of year anxiety is that those with even mild social anxiety who were able to avoid a lot of socialising this year. The longer we go without facing our fears, the harder it can be to do so later. Unfortunately, the best way to handle this is to feel the fear and do it anyway. Make it as easy for yourself as possible, whether that means having a support person or letting people know ahead of time that you are feeling a little anxious about reconnecting. Just remember that facing your fears is the best way to move forward.
Focus on the positives
Think about what you are grateful for. When we notice getting caught up in our thoughts and feelings, we can try to instead ground ourselves in the present. Notice any negative thoughts, and try not to judge yourself for them. Treat yourself the way you would treat a friend. Practice self-compassion.
Remember what is in your capability
Financial concerns may also be a contributor to distress, as many kiwis lost their jobs due to COVID, and many are struggling in the face of a recession. We are in a society that glamorises and idealises Christmas. This can create unrealistic expectations of how Christmas should go, often leading to disappointment and stress. Lowering expectations will reduce pressure and stress, and likely lead to greater enjoyment of the holidays. This may include lowering expectations around presents due to the financial pressure many are experiencing.
Make time for stress relief
In moments where you feel stressed, pause and take a moment to ground yourself. This can mean doing some deep breathing to centre yourself, or noticing your surroundings and what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and feel, or talking to someone. Pause and ask yourself, are my thoughts helping me to plan, or out of my control? If your thoughts are not helping you, look at ways to respond to them with compassion. Be kind to yourself.
Self-care and taking advantage of moments that uplift us is another way to mitigate our worry and be kind to ourselves during a difficult time. This could mean going on walks, listening to music, taking tea or coffee breaks, stretching, reading a book, journaling, doing yoga, baking, arts and crafts, taking a bath – the list goes on! You could try breathing exercises or guided meditations, there are many available online.
If you are unsure or feeling overwhelmed, you can also call the free 24/7 national ANXIETY HELPLINE (0800 ANXIETY; 0800 269 4389). Trained volunteers offer support and advice on coping with worry and other distressing thoughts, feelings, or behaviours. They can take you through brief and effective anxiety management interventions and discuss helpful distraction and relaxation strategies.