Coping with holiday loneliness magnified during COVID-19 pandemic

State News

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Dana Bear has dealt with depression most of her adult life.

Bear started taking medication for depression when she was 25. She said they helped temporarily but did not last. She had suicidal tendencies and turned to alcohol.

She learned about a noninvasive treatment at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which helped manage her symptoms.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated difficulty for Bear, as she, like many others, will be spending the holidays alone instead of with family due to coronavirus concerns.

“We’ll talk on the phone and everything,” Bear, who turns 72 on Dec. 5, said. Her eyes welled up when she detailed her Thanksgiving plan to get barbecue and eat at home in Lubbock instead of gathering for a traditional Thanksgiving meal with her sister who lives nearby.

“It’s okay to not be okay; it’s okay to be sad and disappointed,” Dr. Joanne Sotelo, director of the psychiatry division at Baylor Scott & White Health.

Sotelo said long-term loneliness can have lasting effects on the brain, “to the point of it affecting our long-term risk as the way smoking or obesity can.”

“It increases our chances of having heart disease and dementia on top of the depression and the anxiety,” Sotelo explained.

“One of the hypotheses is that it changes kind of the stress hormones that increase your blood pressure, getting to that inflammation cascade that makes us more at risk of getting ill,” she continued.

“But then also, when we’re by ourselves, we don’t take good as good care of ourselves, we don’t move as much,” Sotelo said. “So there are several components that contribute to those changes.”

Sotelo said reaching out to a friend, or better yet, a doctor, is critical for people feeling down. she said beyond mental health, people can experience physical symptoms including changes to sleep schedule, difficulty concentrating, headaches, muscle tension and upset stomach.

“We cannot ignore it, we cannot minimize it, we can not just, ‘I’ll just toughen up and push through,'” Sotelo said. “If you are struggling with those emotions, it is very important to acknowledge it, and get help.”

Bear, who also suggested people in situations similar to hers try to talk with someone about their emotions, said she also battles seasonal affective disorder. She looks for a silver lining at the end of each winter to pull her through.

“My depression usually amps up in November, and gets gets worse until around February,” she said, eagerly awaiting the “first pretty day” of the new year.

“It’s like, ‘oh, boy, spring really is coming,'” she said with a smile. “It kind of gives me a little hope and energy that ‘okay, yeah, everything is going to be alright.'”

Sotelo said talking about mental health is an important first step to getting help. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission launched a statewide 24/7 mental health hotline for anyone anxious or stressed during the COVID-19 outbreak. The toll-free number is (833) 986-1919.

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