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Decorating early for the holidays is good for your mental health, experts say

A lot of people are spreading Christmas cheer -- and cheering up -- by putting up their lights, trees and other décor earlier than usual.

HOUSTON — Like everything else in 2020, the holidays will be very different for most of us.

It’s too soon to say where we’ll stand with COVID cases at Christmas time, but it’s not looking good.

Still, people across the country are determined not to let the pandemic spoil the holidays. They’re spreading Christmas cheer by putting up their lights, trees and other décor earlier than usual.

When 34-year-old Chad Barnes decorates his Houston home for the holidays, he goes all out.

“I am putting up 18 Christmas trees this year,” Barnes said.

“Decorating for the holidays was always a time we spent with family, and it’s just more fun to go over the top,” Barnes said. “Now people expect that I’m going to all out for Christmas, and it brings a lot of joy to people. It makes me happy and everyone else loves it just as much as I do.”

Spreading cheer can cheer you up

Finding new ways to follow old traditions is good for your mental health, according to experts. They say it can help reclaim our identity, trigger happy memories and give us a sense of control when so many things seem uncontrollable.

“Rituals, such as decorating for the holidays, are indeed healing and in some ways can give you back the sense of personal identity that’s been forced out during the pandemic,” said Dr. Vineeth John, a  professor of psychiatry at UT-Health Science Center. “Decorating early is a way to try to reclaim our traditions and rituals that offer us confluence of memories, identity, connections, and family.

RELATED: Houston man spreading holiday spirit by wrapping neighborhood bridge in Christmas lights

Reclaiming identity

John said suddenly changing the way we live, work and interact with others during the pandemic has contributed to a loss of identity for many.

“We really need a sense of validation and reciprocity from others to enhance our sense of self. Digital interactions are great, but they do not fully substitute the power and potential of physical proximity to unleash our creativity and spirit of collaboration. So, what we are left with are our rituals which can help anchor our identity during these times,” John explained.

Gaining a sense of control 

When we think of grief, we often think of the loss of a loved one. And while that is tragically something many people are wrestling with during the pandemic, many are also simply grieving the loss of control.

“I think that so much of our lives are out of control at the moment and we have control over so little, this is one thing people can do to bring joy to their lives on their own terms. Rituals are a way that we can give our lives structure and meaning,” said UTHealth Professor Nathan Carlin, PhD.

Research shows that rituals, like putting up Christmas trees and lights, can have beneficial effects on perceived control and can help reduce grief.

Finding comfort in memories

For many, holiday decorating brings back fond memories that can lighten the mood.

Barnes said many of his Christmas decorations have a story behind them and putting them up is a way to spark those memories.

“When we respond to a crisis, it is easy to maximize bad things and minimize good things – thoughts like ‘everything is terrible, nothing is good’ – these are cognitive distortions,” John said. “Remembering memories is like wielding a small shield against this distorted way of thinking. Remembering the great times you’ve experienced in the past and anchoring those memories could help you avoid distorting your thinking just because of the events that happened this year.”

In addition to reflecting on the past, Barnes said decorating helps him look forward

“When I see my decorations up, I know the year is almost up and it’s time to start over fresh – a new year, new things,” Barnes said. “That’s something we’re all looking forward to after this year.”

Add light to the dark 

If you’re working from home and the days are blurring together, Carlin says putting up decorations is an easy way to brighten your mood, and maybe your neighbor’s too.

“If every day looks the same and things are starting to feel dull and monotonous, why not get something out of the garage and hang it up? That doesn’t cost money. Decorating with what you have is almost like an act of defiance to your environment. It’s playful, adds color to your home, and possibly even your neighborhood,” Carlin said.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for help 

If you’re struggling with mental health issues like so many others, there is help available.

“If there is a pattern of consistent and prolonged sense of sadness and helplessness which has been impacting your ability to function well, focus, sleep, eat, affecting your energy and your sense of wellbeing – and especially if those changes are noticeable to others – you may have slipped into initial stages of depression,” John said.

If you are experiencing a crisis, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

If you or a loved one is feeling overwhelmed, there are resources available, including the Crisis Text Line. Simply text HOME to 741741 to reach a professional counselor.

To make an appointment with a UT Physicians mental health specialist, call 888-4UT-DOCS.