Holiday stress can be especially hurtful for people who are already struggling with isolation and loneliness due to the pandemic. Many families haven’t gathered at all for the past ten months. Many are grieving that they cannot celebrate in their traditional ways.
Erin Wiley, MA, LPC, LPCC, a licensed clinical psychotherapist, has tips to help people navigate a pandemic holiday season.
“The patients I see for counseling regularly are already struggling with the idea that they haven’t seen many of their family members since last December. Knowing they won’t see any of them for possibly another 6 to 18 months is really weighing on them emotionally,” Wiley said. “It’s a real grieving process, knowing that you should forfeit seeing loved ones for the greater good of all.”
People who live close to family and people who still live in the towns where they grew up don’t seem to be phased by the restrictions as others are, she noted. Those who are transplants in their communities struggle more because they may already have felt isolated.
“Singles, in particular, have mentioned to me how hard it is to always be alone,” Wiley said. “I have encouraged many to consider a pet for company.”
In Wiley’s suburban area, many families are still meeting as usual. “Plenty have decided to forgo holiday gatherings altogether, for fear of getting anyone, especially older family members, sick,” Wiley said.
“Some are making plans to exchange gifts and food plates on each other’s doorsteps,” Wiley said. “Some are mailing gifts to open together on zoom. A few families are driving south to stay in isolation in a rental where it’s warm since they can’t see any family this year. People are getting creative, but it’s because they are trying to find a way to cope with the loss of the traditional holiday as they’ve always known it.”
Letting Go of Expectations
Suggestions for better mental health during the holiday season include letting go of expectations. Things are going to be much different for most families this year. Knowing this and managing it emotionally will help bring peace.
“If we let ourselves get carried away in the list of things we lost this year, it can be overwhelming and depressing,” Wiley said. “Give yourself time to experience the sadness, disappointment, and emotional pain of this loss, then resolve to find new and creative ways to celebrate the holiday, even with the restrictions we are under.”
If you are someone who has looser boundaries than others, try understanding that people are afraid and that the fear is legitimate, Wiley said. “Being angry because people want to stay safe isn’t fair. We all need to take a step back to work on regulating our emotions when upset and disappointed. Know that, even if you can’t see family members this winter, you will be able to again at some point in the future. Think of that joyful reunion!”
If you are someone who is holding stricter rules for isolating this season, explain your boundaries the best you can to your family. “Prepare for people to be frustrated or disappointed but remember that it isn’t your job to make others happy,” Wiley recommended. “Your primary job is to keep you and your family safe.”
Here are 4 mental health self-care tips to practice, particularly during the holidays:
1. Take time to focus on the good
Writing and meditating on the things we are grateful for is a proven method to increase joy because it helps us find the positive, no matter our situation. If you do it every day, you will find over time that you see wonderful things all around you to add to your list for the next day’s gratitude practice.
2. Take time to be alone
Holidays are notoriously busy even in times of social isolation. Get away from the noise, from the internet, social media, and other busy distractions. Turn off the TV and the music and spend some quiet time in solitude. Even if you are an extrovert, especially if you are an extrovert, it’s good to slow down and give our brains a break from the chaos.
3. Focus some of your energy on people in need
At a time of year when everyone is feeling more generous and especially in a year where so many have struggled with maintaining stable income, and someone in need who you can assist. It can be as simple as an anonymous $10 gift card for the grocery store or gas station, or as elaborate as “adopting” a local family in need for gift giving. Keeping our eyes off of our own troubles and instead focusing on helping others is a solid strategy for increased joy.
4. Make an effort to remain emotionally connected during the holidays
Create new traditions with those around you, even if you can’t spend time with them in person. Families can send packages of small gifts to family members they can’t see this year, we can reach out to neighbors by sharing holiday foods, make decorations for a local nursing home, or adopt a family in need. Online calls are still a good way to see people who we miss, even though many of us are tired of staring at screens because of work.
Make it interesting: hold an online gathering where younger children ask the older generation about holidays past. Create a fun trivia contest around a holiday theme and crown a virtual winner. Send presents in the mail and open them “together” in a group online.
Erin Wiley, MA, LPC, LPCC, is a clinical psychotherapist and the executive director of The Willow Center, a counseling practice in Toledo, Ohio. For further information visit Erin Wiley.com