SALT LAKE CITY — In a normal year, the holiday season serves as a time of peace, happiness and fun seasonal traditions for most. But, as we all know, 2020 is no normal year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges to everyone worldwide. With the virus continuing to spread — leaving patients alone in hospitals, doctors overworked, and others isolated from loved ones — this time of year doesn't seem to feel the same as years past.
However, there might be one thing that can help: gratitude.
While it might seem counterintuitive, Dr. Travis Mickelson, a psychiatrist and associate medical director of mental health integration at Intermountain Healthcare, said gratitude can help people cope with mental health struggles.
"During times of stress and uncertainty our brains are wired to scan our environment for threatening situations," he said Wednesday at a news conference. "One of the best coping strategies we have at managing this very biological aspect of stress is being able to actively notice positive things going on in your life."
Finding different ways to cope with a crisis as chronic as a worldwide pandemic is crucial to surviving, Lauren Weitzman, director of the University Counseling Center, told KSL.com.
"That's where gratitude comes back in, in terms of taking time to appreciate the small things that we're thankful for in our lives and maybe focusing on what we have, instead of what we don't have this holiday season," she said. "I think it will be challenging, but I think it'll help us get through. It's going to be a tough couple of months, but hopefully we'll be getting on the other side of that in the new year."
It's important to note, Weitzman said, that while looking outward and focusing on positives might help people get through some challenges they face, it is extremely normal to feel the toll COVID-19 has taken on everyone's lives.
"I think it's just really normal to feel more down or blue or anxious," she said. "Clearly, feeling more socially isolated from family and friends is huge right now."
Finding ways to stay connected with loved ones can make all the difference in helping someone feel less alone, she added.
"Even though we're physically distant, what are some ways that we can maintain that social support and connection, recognizing that nothing is going to take the place of a good old in-person hug, but maybe getting creative with ways to connect with family and friends," she said.
Thanksgiving can serve as a nice reminder for people to share what they are grateful for in their lives, Weitzman said, noting it can benefit people's mental health to keep that atmosphere of gratitude year-round — not just around the holidays.
While thinking of things to be grateful for is a good first step, Weitzman said writing them down will help someone stay present with that thought and sharing it with others can remind them of what they are thankful for.
Mickelson said that if individuals can name three positive things that happened in their day every day for two weeks straight, the benefits can last up to six months.
"There have been several scientific studies to show that can be as powerful at managing symptoms of stress and depression and anxiety as anything else," he said.
As humans, we have evolved, our brains have become hardwired to notice negative things and focus on things that might hurt us, Mickelson said. Simply finding things to be thankful for can help re-wire brains to see positives instead, he added.
"I think when we hear other people expressing gratitude for things in their lives, that also helps us recognize and more readily identify what we also feel grateful for," Weitzman said.
That has certainly been the case for Jill Lyon, of Orem, who said seeing everyone's posts for the #GiveThanks challenge, which was issued last week by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Russell M. Nelson, has helped remind her of things to be grateful for.
There has been several scientific studies to show that (gratitude) can be as powerful at managing symptoms of stress and depression and anxiety as anything else.
–Dr. Travis Mickelson, a psychiatrist and associate medical director of mental health integration at Intermountain Healthcare
A good friend of Lyon's recently posted about her gratitude for a diabetic monitor she uses, which reminded Lyon to be thankful for the medical equipment used to aid her husband, who is also diabetic.
"I never would have really thought of that as a blessing, but as she shared that I thought: You know, that it's just such a great attitude and perspective to have," she said.
Before the #GiveThanks challenge, Lyon said she avoided social media since it was filled with contempt and toxicity. But on Sunday, she was moved to tears to see her feed flooded with positive messages from friends and family that helped her reflect on the things in life she feels grateful for.
While the faith leader's call to action has been seen by some as simply for the Latter-day Saint community, President Nelson extended his invitation to everyone worldwide, regardless of religion.
Lyon said she has seen several #GiveThanks posts from some of her nonmember friends as well.
"It doesn't have to be just the (Latter-day Saint) church that does it, and it's not even from what I've seen on Twitter," she said. "Other people are grabbing the hashtag and taking this time right now to show gratitude."
Some online have viewed the hashtag, which has blown up on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, as a way for people to virtue signal or publicly brag about their lives.
Lyon doesn't see it that way and instead felt the movement was "a way to bring people together."
"You can't help but reflect on your blessings when you read what other people are grateful for," she added.
While feeling grateful and focusing on the things in life that make you feel thankful is a good tool to cope with stress, Weitzman noted it's important to know that doing these things doesn't invalidate what someone is feeling or experiencing. It's simply a tool to help them get through it.
"I think the first thing is to be gentle with ourselves and show ourselves grace, just like we would a friend or a family member," she said. "I do think it comes down to having compassion for ourselves, and then also demonstrating that compassion in our relationships with other people."
Anyone struggling with mental health issues can call Intermountain Healthcare's free emotional health relief hotline at 833-442-2211; or if someone is suffering a mental health crisis, they can seek help by calling 911 or using the resources below.
Suicide Prevention Resources
- Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
- National Suicide Prevention Crisis Text Line: Text "HOME" to 741-741
- Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386
- University Of Utah Crisis Interventional Crisis Line: 801-587-300