The holidays can bring on the blues during a "normal" year -- and this has been anything but.

Throw in colder, shorter days and a pandemic, and the sorrow of lost loved ones or the stresses of daily life can take an even more severe toll on a person's mental health.

Dr. Frank Ghinassi, president and CEO of Rutgers University's Behavioral Health Care and senior vice president of The Behavioral health and Addiction Service Line at RWJ-Barnabas Health, said the key to managing mental health will be a return to basics.

Schedule and structure your day as much as possible. During stressful times, your sleep cycles can be disturbed, which can undermine mental health further. Ghinassi recommends going to bed and getting up each day  around the same time, within 30 minutes.

If you're working from home, find a place that you associate specifically with work, even if it's just the corner of a room, Ghinassi said. When work is done, leave that space where it is. In other words, don't work all over the house or the house will become the office, and there is no escape.

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Nicotine, alcohol and caffeine intake can become a cause for concern. They can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to additional stress as well.

Ghinassi recommends exercising 30 minutes a day. If you don't feel comfortable going outside and bundling up in the cold, then find videos or online sessions for yoga and other exercises that can be done at home with no equipment.

He said during the pandemic and the accompanying isolation, people have been forced to find creative ways to socialize. It's important to keep up with that socialization even if it means doing it via video. It might mean preparing a meal remotely with a close friend. While you're both cooking, you're talking to each other on a screen. And a simple phone call goes a long way.

People are also re-discovering the art of letter writing during the pandemic, Ghinassi said.

Even introverts have a need to socialize. Ghinassi said it's much easier for introverts to do their socialization one-on-one. They can still exercise and enjoy the outdoors with one person. Introverts also prefer plain phone calls to face-to-face time, he added.

Ghinassi also said it's important to prepare ourselves mentally for the upcoming holidays. Don't assume quarantine means it has to be the worst holiday in memory, he said. Being creative about maintaining traditions and keeping in touch with loved ones can help keep the spark of the holidays alive.

Reflecting on the recent loss of loved ones is tough in any holiday season, Ghinassi said. The stress of the pandemic only enhances that. But grief is a necessary part of losing a loved one, he said.

And the way out of grief is through it, he added.

But he also said that if grief, extends too long -- for instance, if it's overwhelmingly for months -- then it's time to talk to a professional. That professional might be a primary care provider, a therapist or a religious leader. Even if someone died years ago, before COVID-19, the holidays typically reconnect us to their loss, Ghinassi  said.

He said to use this time to celebrate their lives. Balance the grief and sadness by telling stories, re-living memories, looking at photos and watching videos of lost loved ones. Celebrate their life and you'll see yourself smile too, he said.

READ MORE: LOVED & LOST — NJ’s lives lost to COVID-19


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