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How to manage the holiday blues with gratitude

Dr. Jay Kaplan

With Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and all the holidays during this time of year, it’s understandable if you’re struggling with sadness, anxiety and loneliness. This holiday season will be unusual with the COVID-19 pandemic making people feel stressed and frightened. There is even talk of “cancelling the holidays.” So it is okay if you are feeling sad or blue.

“If you’re feeling a little bit down or stressed, please know that is normal; there is nothing wrong with you,” says Dr. Jay Kaplan, LCMC Health Medical Director of Care Transformation and UMC Emergency Room Physician.

That’s why it’s perhaps more important than ever to focus on gratitude — the practice of noticing and being thankful for what is valuable and meaningful to you. It’s good for your mental and physical health, it can help you relax, and its effects can help you stay well through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

Dr. Kaplan gives us tips on how we can use gratitude to help manage our mental and physical health this holiday season and beyond.

What is gratitude?

Focusing on silver linings. Counting your blessings. Stopping to smell the roses: These aren’t just clichés; they’re activities that can enhance your quality of life. The health benefits of practicing gratitude are wide-ranging — and maybe even a bit surprising.

  • Improving your immune system. The practice of gratitude can improve immune function, according to the American Heart Association. This is especially important during the COVID-19 crisis, since people with compromised immune systems face a high risk of becoming severely ill from coronavirus.
  • Lowering your risk for mental health issues. Studies have shown that people who practiced gratitude showed a significantly lower risk for major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and substance dependence and abuse, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
  • Getting a handle on stress. Focusing on positive emotions can help improve your ability to cope with stress, according to the National Institutes of Health.
  • Setting yourself up for success. In clinical trials, grateful people have been shown to exercise more and eat healthier diets.

Why we need gratitude now

“This is the time of year to be grateful for what we have and to connect to those people we love and who love us,” said Dr. Kaplan. "We're meant to experience joy and sadness, but there's been a lot of sadness around us, so let's go for the joy." 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that people who practice gratitude are:

  • More generous and helpful
  • More likely to offer emotional support
  • More likely to share their possessions
  • More willing to forgive others

If ever there was a time when these traits were needed, it’s now.

How do I practice gratitude?

Practicing gratitude can be easy, rewarding — and fun! You can start small by taking a few moments to notice things that are going well in your life.

To help make this a regular habit, set aside a short time each day to intentionally practice gratitude. Try one or more of these activities to start.

managing holiday stress, LCMC Health

Jot down your joys

“We will all go through storms in our lives, and the real issue is how prepared can we be to go through those storms,” said Dr. Kaplan. “Ask yourself what makes you feel better and what brings you joy and create a joy list.”

Dr. Kaplan suggest using this joy list on the days when you’re not feeling your best and pick out one thing on the list to do to make you feel better. It can be anything from going on a walk to calling someone you care about.

It doesn’t have to be a long list, but if you regularly challenge yourself to identify and name your gratitude, you may begin to notice improvement in your emotional well-being.

Try sitting down and listing out:

  • One place that is safe and relaxes you
  • One thing that’s going well in your life
  • Three things you enjoy
  • Three things you’re looking forward to
  • Two people whom you love and who love you

Or try an easy-to-remember acronym, HEART, as suggested by the American Heart Association:

  • Health: Think of what your body allowed you to do today. Maybe your feet enabled you to walk around the house or your arms allowed you to hold a pet you love.
  • Eat: What nourishment did you provide your body today? What was your favorite meal?
  • Activity: Did you do something today that you really enjoyed? Take a moment to reflect on and savor it.
  • Relationship: Did you see or talk to someone today who brings you joy? Or are you planning to see someone on a video chat who fits that description? (Remember: The person in the mirror counts.)
  • Time: There’s no time like the present. Allow yourself to be grateful for the fact that you’re here.

If this sounds like too much to tackle, pick and choose what you’d like to focus on, and feel free to change it up depending on your mood or ability.

And if you find yourself saying that you have nothing to be grateful for, try thinking about all the little things you have. You may find that you’re taking for granted certain abilities or privileges you have that others don’t.

Take care of your body

"Your body, your mind, and your emotions are intimately interconnected," said Dr. Kaplan. "Our bodies need adequate nutrition, exercise, and rest. 

Exercise: Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week. It doesn't have to be all at once. It can be separate 10-minute periods.

Nutrition: You have to nourish your body to be able to get this exercise. No one diet works for every person. If you feel good about yourself and your body, you will want to eat better.

Rest: It's important you get at least 6 hours of sleep per night, but we should really be getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. We often set alarms to wake up in the morning, but try setting an alarm for when it's time for you to go to sleep at night. 

Make mealtimes mindful

Before and during meals, take time to appreciate the bounty on your table. When eating, slow down and savor every bite. Not only will you feel more thankful, but you’ll also be less likely to overeat.

Count blessings instead of sheep

Before falling asleep, take a moment to think about the positive things that happened during your day. Research shows that gratitude may help you get a better night’s sleep.

Stop and savor

It might be hard to recognize positive moments while they’re happening, but if you practice enough, you will get the hang of it. When you find yourself enjoying a moment — a sound, a memory, a conversation — try to pause for a bit and bask in the experience.

Create your own moments

Devote time to yourself. You deserve some pampering, and it’ll be one more thing you can be grateful for later on.

Pass it on

The more selfless you are, the more you may get out of it. Research shows that you may feel happier and more satisfied with life when you volunteer. During this COVID-19 pandemic, you can help make an impact on your community while staying safe.

Need Help staying well?

LCMC Health will help you navigate your way safely through the coronavirus outbreak. We have a Nurse Hotline staffed 7 days a week to answer your questions and provide key information regarding healthcare. Call 504.962.6202 to talk to a registered nurse now.

Related blog posts:

Dr. Jay Kaplan helps to heal those who've been healing our community
Dr. Jay Kaplan shares words of comfort and encouragement with colleagues
A conversation with Dr. Jay Kaplan, Medical Director of Care Transformation at LCMC Health