Surviving the Holidays During a Pandemic

By Cate Brandon, Psy.D.

Holidays are stressful and distressing for many, even in normal times. This year, new stresses, anxieties and uncertainties surround holiday activities and planning. It is necessary to accept that this year will look different and find ways to adapt. Here are some things to consider to help you to enjoy the holiday season in these unique times.

Don’t be afraid to initiate conversations

First and foremost, if you typically celebrate holidays with family or friends, start having conversations soon. Approach these conversations with an open mind. People have varying levels of risk tolerance, personal risk factors and situational factors that can influence their approach to outside interactions. Whether you are more cautious or less cautious than others in your circle, try to accept their positions and perspectives without judgment.

Do not be afraid to be honest about your comfort level and to gently decline invitations that are not consistent with your current risk tolerance and value set. But do not judge or criticise those who make different decisions than you. There are no easy or clear-cut decisions in 2020 and it is important to trust that those you care about are making whatever decisions they think are best for them at this moment in time.

Embrace enjoying the season in a different way

One of the many complaints I hear year after year (and experience myself) is how it is difficult to fit everything in and enjoy the season. People are overcommitted and stretched thin. This year gives us an opportunity to be more selective and participate in the activities we enjoy most. Perhaps that could be going all out with decorating, making some new recipes for a small family meal or having movie nights with the family to enjoy your favorite holiday programs.

Because this year will likely have fewer activities and commitments than usual, take the time to really enjoy the activities that you choose. For example, instead of feeling that you have to rush through a pile of Christmas cards, just scribbling a brief note and your name on each card, perhaps you can take the time to pen a heartfelt message. Instead of rushing the kids back and forth to parties, concerts and extra activities, perhaps you can build an elaborate gingerbread house together, like they have always asked you to do. Maybe you have always wanted to take a winter hike in fresh snow, but have never been able to find the time – this is the year!

It could also be a time to start new traditions. Take a drive around the neighborhood looking at all of the lights, find a charity to donate to as a family or research new dishes to make for Thanksgiving, rather than just cooking the same old thing every year. Check out some books from the library and explore different cultural traditions for some inspiration.

The key is to accept the current situation and the reality that it will limit our ability to participate in many of our usual seasonal activities. We all have a choice this year: rather than getting stuck in feeling depressed or resentful about all the things that are different in a negative way, try to find positive differences that you can appreciate and that can maybe even benefit you!

Find ways to bring joy to others

There is a great deal of research indicating that there are benefits that come from giving to others. This holiday season can provide us with the opportunity to think outside of our circle, as we may have more funds available if we are not spending money on traveling or more time on our hands if we are not preparing a large meal. Dropping some baked goodies off on a neighbor’s porch, sending a gift card for groceries to a friend whose finances have been impacted by the pandemic or volunteering for a food bank can all be ways to help yourself by helping others. Even taking the time to write a handwritten note to someone you know has been struggling this year can make a meaningful impact.

Find different ways to connect

We may all be tired of socializing via Zoom, but for many of us this is the safest way to interact this year. Finding a way to make it unique to your family will make it more special than just looking at each other on a screen. If your family likes to watch movies together, consider doing a watch party. If you like playing family games, consider an online gaming product like If the meal is the biggest part of your holiday get-together, maybe consider having each member of the family make a dish and deliver it to each others’ houses (if you live near enough to each other), having everyone find a new recipe to share and have everyone make it at their home (if you live farther apart) or doing a virtual “Nailed It” challenge.

Find joy in the moments

More than ever this year, it is a time for us to find moments of peace, relish simplicity and identify the small things for which we are grateful. While we may miss the hustle and bustle of rushing from one place to another, maybe we can enjoy the slow pace of a holiday just spent with our immediate family, with nowhere to go and the ability to relish in a leisurely meal or taking all morning to unwrap gifts. Perhaps you miss the rush of holiday gatherings, but find tranquility in a frosty winter hike in the woods. Although you may miss seeing family in person, appreciate that instead of having to spend hours packing and weaving your way through crowded airports or traveling in a cramped car, you have time to bake all of the different holiday treats you’ve wanted to try for years but have never been able to – and get the added bonus of the joy of sharing them with neighbors and friends by dropping them off at their door! Instead of the kids holiday concert this year, you can snuggle up on the couch and have a holiday movie marathon.

While this year has had many downsides and losses, to be sure, there are things that we can gain from this experience and focusing on those positives (while still allowing ourselves to be sad, disappointed and even angry about the sacrifices we have had to make) can help prevent this year from being a wash. It has been heartwarming to see communities come together and get creative about how to respond to the crisis presented by the global pandemic – I think of how fun and inspiring it was to see how all of our neighbors found unique candy delivery methods for Halloween so that the kids could still safely go trick-or-treating. This year has taught us about resilience in the face of difficulty and has made many of us realize we can handle more than we think. And this year has also brought us more appreciation for nature, family and friends, as well as a sense of appreciation for all of the things that we were unable to do this year (and hopefully a gratitude for those things that will persist when we are able to do them again in the future).

Whatever you decide to do this year, it must start with an acknowledgement of the grief for the losses we have suffered and sacrifices we have had to make, followed by acceptance of the current situation, and finally by an awareness that these difficulties are not permanent. There is hope for the future that begins with acceptance in the present.

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