Information You Can Use
From holidays and community events to travel and family gatherings, get the latest updates and health and safety considerations for COVID-19.
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While the holidays are supposed to be times of joy and good cheer, for many, they instead produce undo stress and anxiety. When you add on the fear, worry and stress that are normal responses to perceived or real threats like COVID-19, it’s understandable that people are experiencing heightened mental health struggles as we move into winter.
Whether it’s staring at a second wave, anticipating a holiday season limited by COVID-19, or battling the seasonal “blues” while also staying safer at home, this Wisconsin winter undoubtedly will be a challenge. It’s important we emphasize taking care of our mental health in the months ahead and know we are not alone with any struggles.
Coping with a COVID-19 crisis
Sources: CDC; WHO; Drs. Cipriano and Larsen
It’s normal to feel a sense of loss with this isolation, and it’s OK to grieve and not be OK. Acknowledge these emotions because if you don’t, those feelings will just stir deep down and become worse.
Talking about our emotions with trusted friends and family allows us to calm down and develop coping strategies such as making time to unwind, regularly connecting with others (even virtually), trying out meditation, focusing on a new hobby or taking a break from the news.
So much is out of our control right now, which can lead to increased anxiety. Instead of swirling in the unknown, focus on things you can control, like creating a “new” normal routine and taking care of your physical health, including healthy eating, exercise and sleep. For many with anxiety, this also means having a plan in place should anyone in your household become exposed to COVID-19, including where to get tested and seek treatment if necessary and how to deal with quarantine.
While none of us have ever experienced a pandemic before, everyone has dealt with other challenges throughout our lives. Draw on the coping strategies that helped you manage past adversities – from the loss of employment to a serious injury to a death of a loved one – to help you manage your emotions today.
Think about the positive events in your life that will happen in the future. While we can never be sure what the new normal will look like, with the advancement of vaccines and therapies, there most certainly will be a time in the future where we can resume some of the fun activities and events that we have had to forego during the pandemic.
Even though the current situation can seem overwhelming, there still are wonderful things happening each day. Savoring the present moment is related to higher levels of positive emotion.
Remember the good times that you have had in the past with loved ones. By being able to recall happy memories, we can remember that our lives have been blessed even during a particularly difficult time.
More people than ever are reaching out for mental health services in 2020, which means you’re not alone if you also feel like you need additional assistance. Signs that you might need professional guidance include any of these prolonged behaviors that interfere with your everyday responsibilities:
- Feelings of fear, anger, worry, numbness or frustration
- Changes in appetite, energy and activity levels
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs
Managing stress during an unusual holiday
Sources: Mental Health America; Mayo Clinic; Cleveland Clinic
Figuring out your emotions related to the upcoming unusual holiday season will allow you to cope better, so take the time to really listen to yourself. You can do this by journaling, talking to a friend or loved one or just spending some mindful time thinking about your feelings.
Now that you’ve acknowledge your feelings, don’t wait to deal with them until the holidays are in full swing. Start thinking and planning now, especially as not everyone in your extended circle will have the same thoughts on how to navigate the season, which could lead to some difficult conversations.
Part of coping ahead should be focusing on how you can make the most of having some change of traditions. While you might be losing some favorite activities, you’re probably going to be able to leave behind some stressors too. You don’t need to always be happy about our current situation, but you can always look for a silver lining – like more quality time at home with your immediate family instead of running around to different celebrations! – and not distort reality to make things worse than they are.
If you have already been working on coping strategies throughout the pandemic, don’t let them go during the holidays and allow the season to become a free-for-all, which will only add to your stress. If you haven’t started, consider balancing the indulgence of the holiday season with some of the following:
- Have a healthy snack before holiday meals so that you don't go overeat later.
- Prioritize sleep.
- Exercise regularly.
- Try deep-breathing exercises, meditation or yoga.
- Avoid excessive tobacco, alcohol and drug use.
- Adjust the time you spend reading news and social media that can cause undo stress and anxiety.
While it might be difficult to focus on the bright side during a pandemic, deep down we know there is still plenty to be thankful for. Make a concerted effort to identify things you’re grateful for, whether it’s something as broad as your family or something as specific as the friendly smile and wave of a neighbor walking by.
Being kind to people we encounter throughout the day can in turn help improve our own mood. Even imagining ourselves acting compassionately toward others can produce this effect.
Throughout the day, take a moment for yourself, breathe and conduct a wellbeing self-check. You can often do this during mundane or daily tasks (e.g. brushing your teeth, waiting at a red light, etc.).
Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, irritable or hopeless and unable to face routine chores. At that point, it’s OK to use the Resources section below to seek additional help for your mental health.
Battling Seasonal Affective Disorder during a pandemic
Sources: American Psychiatric Association; Souzan Swift, PsyD, at Heal; Vaile Wright, PhD, with the American Psychological Association
Whether you go for the natural source or try light therapy, maximize the amount of sunlight you encounter each day. Bundle up and take a walk, rearrange your home office space to be near a window and keep all the blinds open in your house to get those extra rays.
As loneliness and isolation make SAD worse, prioritize your social connections this winter, even if they must be virtual. Make regular “dates” with friends and families to catch up over phone or video chat or plan virtual game or movie nights.
Additionally, if your “bubble” does include a few people outside your household, lean on them heavily for social interaction and get creative with your activities.
While self-care looks different for everyone, in general it’s important to maintain a regular routine that includes healthy eating, exercise and adequate sleep.
If you are experiencing any prolonged symptoms of SAD – including a depressed mood, loss of interest in activities, excessive sleep yet loss of energy and difficulty thinking – it’s best to reach out to a professional earlier rather than later. You can contact your primary care physician or access other professional help in the Resources section below.
Disaster Distress Helpline: 1 (800) 985-5990 (press 2 for Spanish), or text TalkWithUs for English or Hablanos for Spanish to 66746.
The Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division offers a crisis support line: (414) 257-7222, and (414) 257-6300 (for deaf accessibility)
Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division: (414) 257-8085 for adults; (414) 257-7607 for children 23 or younger
SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1 (800) 662-HELP (4357) and TTY 1 (800) 487-4889
Mental Health America of Wisconsin: (414) 276-3122 and TTY 1 (866) 948-6483
COVID Coach: App created for everyone, including Veterans and Service members, to support self-care and overall mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic
7cups.com: Free online chat for emotional support and counseling
Lyf: App where users share highly personal aspects of themselves without the fear of judgment
Calm: App for meditation and sleep stories
Hosting or attending holiday gatherings and other alternatives
Prior to hosting or attending a holiday gathering, there may be some additional steps you can take to help increase the health of safety of all.
- Get your flu shot to reduce the likelihood of developing a flu-related illness.
- Have a serious family conversation about commitment and dedication to maintaining a safe environment.
- Discuss a shared commitment to taking precautionary efforts possible the 14 days before the gathering, including masking, physical distancing, and avoiding crowds.
- Consider high risk family members and risk tolerance for exposing them.
- Consider encouraging all hosts and invited guests to avoid contact with people outside their household for 14 days before the gathering.
- Consider asking all hosts and invited guests to get tested before gathering and only convene if everyone tests negative (this is not risk-free, as an individual can contract the virus in one day and be contagious without having symptoms).
- Take precautions if flying – take a direct flight, order face shields or goggles to protect your eyes and wear an approved face covering. Cloth face coverings combined with eye equipment offer an acceptable level of safety but check with the airline for their specific guidelines.
- Follow the COVID-19 guidelines set by your municipality, county and state.
- Limit the number of attendees for any gathering; if you host or attend an event, make sure there are 10 or fewer people.
- Limit the duration of your gathering; gatherings that last longer pose more risk than shorter gatherings.
- Outdoor gatherings are preferred to indoor gatherings. If outdoor events are not possible, avoid crowded, poorly ventilated, or fully enclosed spaces. Open windows and doors to increase ventilation where weather makes it possible and safe to do so.
- Maintain six feet of physical distance from others and use facial coverings while indoors when there are others present who are from outside of your direct household.
- Avoid serving a potluck-style meal; encourage guests to bring food for members of their own household.
- Avoid physical contact like hugs and handshakes and close contact activities.
- Don’t pass babies/small children from person to person.
- Disinfect commonly touched surfaces, doorknobs, faucets, light switches.
- Have hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol at convenient locations.
- Ask guests who are not feeling well to stay home.
- Try to keep gatherings to people from your local area, whenever possible.
Think creatively about alternatives to gathering in person, seeing it as an opportunity to start new traditions and ways to connect. Below are just a few alternatives, but the creativity is endless.
- Host a family cookoff over video.
- Synchronize a Netflix movie between households.
- Host a secret gift exchange and secretly ship gifts so no one needs to leave their house to celebrate.
- Host an online award ceremony for the best-of for the year.
- Host a holiday light contest with drive-by voting.
- Find a game to play over Zoom or FaceTime.
- Attend an outdoor holiday event that abides by recommended precautionary measures such as outdoor festivals or light shows.
Holiday travel considerations
The days surrounding major holidays are some of the highest travel days of the year and should be avoided to the extent possible. Many people travel via plane, train, bus, and car to reach their friends and families and celebrate holidays together. Traveling increases the chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others. MCW infectious disease experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following guidelines to help you travel more safely:
- Wear a mask or face covering in public settings, including airport and train stations, on buses, at all events and gatherings, and anywhere you will be around other people.
- Keep your distance! Stay at least 6 feet apart from anyone who is not in your household.
- Avoid peak travel days and times to minimize crowds (Sanchez)
- Bring your own disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer, keeping in mind TSA volume restrictions. (Sanchez)
- If possible, try to maintain two rows of distance from people outside of your household. (Sanchez)
- Avoid the airplane bathroom, if possible.
- Some studies have shown that eye protection (like face shields, or goggles) in addition to face coverings can decrease transmission, but face shields are not a substitute face coverings. (CDC)
- If possible, refrain from eating, drinking, and taking off your mask while on an airplane or shared transportation. (Sanchez)
- Minimize the number of people handling your luggage. Carrying your bag with you instead of checking it on a flight, bus, or train ride reduces the number of people handling your bag. (Sanchez)
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid contact with anyone who is sick or has been exposed to COVID-19.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Keep your distance from people in the airports, avoid restaurants, bring your own food.
- Check the airlines website for their requirements
College students returning home for the holidays
Some college students may have already returned home if their campus had to close due to an outbreak that would necessitate quarantining and possibly testing. However, for those college students who have been away from home and in college classes or on a college campus all fall, getting tested before leaving campus is both a responsible and safe consideration for the whole family. Students should also quarantine for 14 days upon arriving at home – regardless of a test result – especially if you know the institution your child attended had high transmission rates prior to the holiday break.
General COVID-19 precautions
Educate yourself on how COVID-19 spreads – by close contact, through respiratory droplets (when an infected person coughs, sneezes, breathes, sings, or talks), and by asymptomatic carriers. In less common cases, COVID-19 can be spread by airborne transmission or on contaminated surfaces.
To protect yourself from COVID-19:
- Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick or those who live outside your home.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a mask when around others.
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
- Monitor your health daily.
- Avoid crowds.
Sources: Joyce Sanchez, MCW (where noted); CDC