The holidays have always had the ability to bring joy as well as compound stress, grief, depression and anxiety. This year, COVID-19 risks and restrictions promise to add a unique set of challenges to the mix.
A cursory web search reveals a myriad of COVID resources to help us stay safe during the holidays. Choosing and following safety strategies is essential.
Adjusting our holiday activities and expectations to navigate COVID’s challenges does not mean it must rob us of all that brings joy. Protecting our mental well-being is essential, too. Acknowledging and talking about your family’s needs, risks and feelings can help you successfully navigate the 2020 holidays.
Create a Space to Own Your Emotions
Start by taking time to be aware of your feelings about how COVID is impacting your ability to celebrate the holidays. Do any of these situations apply to you?
- Someone close to you has recently died, is in hospice care or dealing with a chronic health condition.
- You or a family member are unemployed or dealing with other financial stress.
- You won’t be able to celebrate with loved ones or engage is traditional holiday activities.
- Some of your family members want to engage in activities that make you feel uncomfortable or at risk.
These circumstances may leave you feeling angry, sad, anxious or lonely. Take time to own and express your feelings. You can’t and shouldn’t force yourself to deny your emotions simply because it’s the holiday season. Consider taking ten to fifteen minutes a couple times a week to think about and express your emotions about these unwanted changes to your holiday.
Consider Your Loved Ones’ Emotions as Well
It’s important to acknowledge that each family member may have a different emotional reaction to the changes COVID is imposing upon the holidays. If possible, take time as a family to talk about each person’s emotions. As you do this, remember to validate each person’s right to have their emotions.
- Your teenager may be ecstatic about not having to spend the afternoon with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
- Grandparents may be depressed about not having the opportunity to join the celebration and spend time with grandchildren.
- Adults may be deeply anxious about gathering with extended family who are navigating COVID differently than they are.
- Nieces and nephews may be indignant that anything is changing at all because of COVID.
Each person’s emotions are valid and important. Acknowledge their emotions without telling them their emotions are wrong or that they should feel differently. Your job is to hear their emotions and let them know that you understand, not “fix” their feelings.
Honor Varying Safety Needs
We make decisions by assessing the potential outcomes of various solutions and then determining what risks we are willing to take. Each of us has had to determine a level of risk we are willing to tolerate around COVID. We then make decisions based upon that risk tolerance.
Start by identifying your risk level.
- Low Risk Tolerance. Residents of nursing home and others within vulnerable populations often set their risk tolerance levels low enough to ensure they only encounter a narrow group of people who are following strict protective protocols to limit their exposure levels. People who don’t naturally seem to be part of these groups may feel more comfortable when the risk level is low or may need to keep their risk level low so they can be around people who are part of vulnerable populations.
- Moderate Risk Tolerance. These individuals may feel comfortable in small groups when the other group members haven’t been in situations which heighten their risk of exposure. They may be comfortable meeting while honoring social distancing, wearing masks, and not sharing things like serving utensils.
- High Risk Tolerance. These individuals are more comfortable flying or traveling. They feel comfortable gathering in larger groups and may not see as much need for masks or social distancing depending upon the situation.
Have conversations with the people you share holidays with to determine their risk level. It is important for the group to honor the risk level of everyone involved rather than discounting some people’s risk level.
If you have a grandparent residing in a nursing home and college students traveling from New York and California, you will need to find ways to honor the low-risk tolerance of grandparents given the higher risk tolerance of traveling college students. Christmas might need to be moved back until after college students have had a chance to be home for 10 days and restrict their activity so the risk level has been lowered.
Conversely, grandparents might join the gathering via video on the big-screen tv so they can participate while maintaining a lower risk of exposure.
Creatively Combine Your Holiday “Essentials”
The holidays don’t have to be just like last year—in fact they wouldn’t have been even without a pandemic. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals change out of necessity. This makes it important to determine what the meaningful parts of the holidays are for you and your family so you can continue finding creative ways to incorporate these pieces.
COVID provides a wonderful opportunity to talk about what matters most to each family member.
- Have each family member think about the one or two things that matter the most to them about the holidays.
- Ask them what makes this particular thing meaningful.
For example, the family meal is an important part of the holidays for me. When I think about what makes the meal important, it is the time spent together joking around with one another while we cook. This naturally flows into conversations during the meal. It is the community around the meal that makes it meaningful, not what we cook, when we cook, or where we eat. My adult nieces, however, might identify getting to eat things they don’t normally cook for themselves is what is most important to them.
After you identify the elements that matter the most, look for creative ways to put these elements together while honoring the risk tolerance levels of all participants.
Instead of everyone gathering and cooking together like we have done in the past, our family might cook from their own houses on Thanksgiving morning while joking around on a video call. Identifying ahead of time that my nieces love banana bread and homemade rolls would allow me to send them each a care package containing banana bread and the ingredients to make the rolls.
This will allow me to help them create their favorite parts of the holiday. We could then all sit down for the meal in our respective homes, connected by video, and participate in a meal with the essential elements each of us value even though it isn’t the way we normally do it.
Maintain Healthy Habits
The pandemic has made it difficult to maintain structure and routinely engage in healthy habits. Working from home or trying to coordinate children’s on-line learning makes the line between home, work and school blurry! When you add the disruptions the holidays normally bring, it makes maintaining healthy habits difficult.
While it is unlikely that you can maintain healthy habits 100% of the time, try out these suggestions:
Work to maintain sleep schedules.
By working to go to bed and get up at the same time, you keep your body in a rhythm. It can be tempting to allow either you or your children to stay up late and sleep in. This usually results in grumpy children (and adults) who are out of sorts and more prone to meltdowns. Holding the line on bedtime will pay dividends in your life and in your parenting!
Shoot for at least one healthy meal per day.
Instead of the lofty goal of three well-balanced, home-made, healthy meals, give yourself permission to be realistic. Even one healthy meal per day will help you take care of your body and avoid some of the scrumptious but sugar laden foods so prevalent during the holidays.
If you don’t have time to make it to the gym every day, try going for a walk, deliberately trekking up and down the basement stairs a few times, or playing a game outside with your children. Anything you can do to get your body active will help you to manage your physical and mental well-begin.
The 2020 holidays will likely look different than they have in the past. However, even though your holidays may be different, this doesn’t mean you they can’t be memorable, special, and enjoyable.
Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW has been providing outpatient therapy services since 1995 when she earned her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa. She has worked for Pine Rest since 1997. She currently serves as manager of the Telehealth Clinic and the Hastings Clinic and is also a Pine Rest Outpatient Regional Director.