Do the Holidays Have to Be Horrible This Year?

Published on: 24 Nov 2020

Whether it’s having to listen to your relatives’ questionable political rants or grimacing your way through an overcooked turkey, the winter holidays can be difficult at the best of times. Enter 2020, the year that brought us political upheaval, a racial reckoning, an incredibly tense U.S. election, economic instability, and of course, a deadly and destructive pandemic. Without a doubt, holidays this year will be more challenging than usual.

We’re all excited to bid farewell to this dumpster fire of a year, but before we can do so, we should still expect that the holiday season will be emotionally challenging. What does celebrating look like in the era of physical isolation? 

From Thanksgiving to Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe and on to Hanukkah and Christmas, the CDC has a set of guidelines to help you mark the winter holidays safely. There are a bunch of helpful tips on both hosting and attending gatherings, as well as a list of activities rated by risk factor. 

But in addition to our physical health, we need to be prepared to look after our mental well-being this season. Here’s how to do just that. 

Recognize That Holidays Can Be Stressful

Holiday celebrations are meant to be fun, right? Sure they can be, but it’s important to acknowledge that these occasions can be stressful too. 

In a 2014 survey, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that 64% of people with a diagnosed mental illness found that the holidays made their condition worse. Around 75% said the holidays contributed to feeling sad or dissatisfied.

So what mental health signs should you watch out for in the run-up to the holidays? Talkspace therapist Liz Kelly, LICSW, says the following are common symptoms of anxiety and depression (though they can vary from person to person): 

  • Difficulty keeping up with daily tasks
  • Feeling tired and irritable
  • Spending an excessive amount of time scrolling social media or on online shopping and gaming sites
  • Drinking more than usual 
  • Noticing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Finding yourself consumed with worry
  • Having difficulty finding pleasure in things that you used to enjoy. 

Prepare For The Emotional Challenges of 2020 Holidays

If you find yourself experiencing symptoms like those mentioned above, you might want to reach out to a mental health professional for support. This year especially, it’s crucial to be prepared for any emotional challenges that come up. 

Psychologist Adriane Bennett PhD emphasized the importance of planning ahead. She told the Cleveland Clinic: “In psychotherapy, we talk about ‘coping ahead.’ If a big event is coming up, don’t wait until it happens. Start planning and coping now, which is especially good in this case because of all the uncertainty.”

We should bear in mind that many traditions and rituals — like parties, dinners, and concerts — may have to adapt in order to comply with CDC guidelines. 

In addition, the days are shorter and colder so opportunities for outside activities may be limited or take more forethought,” says Kelly. “Individuals may feel increasingly isolated from their friends and loved ones. Many people are also experiencing financial concerns or unemployment. The recent election is also causing contention between friends and family members, which adds another layer of complication to the holiday season.”

The Holidays Won’t Look How They Usually Do 

A big part of dealing with the holidays this year is accepting that they probably won’t be the same as in “normal” years. 

“The images in media and advertising tend to portray perfect holiday gatherings with smiling families, sparkling decorations, an abundance of gourmet food on the holiday table, and beautifully wrapped packages under a tree,” says Kelly. “But these are impossible standards to meet even without the added stress of a pandemic, political and social conflict, and economic concerns.” 

She reminds us that holidays don’t have to be perfect to be meaningful and that we should practice kindness towards ourselves. We need to decide what we want to prioritize this year and let some things go. Our holidays may not look like those of years past and that’s okay.

Try to view the 2020 holidays as an opportunity to get creative. “Be flexible. Give yourself permission to change and adapt your normal holiday traditions and activities,” advises Kelly. 

Maybe this is a chance to stop cooking the turkey that you never really liked anyway, and whip up a COVID-friendly outdoor picnic instead? Or maybe those you live with could safely deliver food packages to people in need. Think of this year as a way to start new family rituals; this positive reframing will support mental well-being.  

Find Ways To Stay Connected, Despite The Isolation

Of course one of the main challenges during the holiday season this year will be dealing with isolation. Our ability to see friends and family is severely limited, and travel should likely not take place at all. 

We are pack animals: loneliness and social isolation were found to be twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. Staying connected is important, and although it might look different this year, it isn’t impossible. 

“Text a family member to say hello,” suggests Kelly. “Send a postcard out of the blue to a friend or write personal notes on holiday cards. Use technology to have video calls with loved ones. Exercise your creativity. For example, you could make a holiday craft or treat to leave on a neighbor’s doorstep.”

Set Boundaries, Then Allow The Feelings

Setting boundaries is crucial to good mental health. You can and should turn down any social invitations that make you feel uncomfortable or that will be unsafe. 

“If you have any doubts, this is the year to skip it,” Dr. Michelle Barron, a leading infectious disease expert in Colorado, told UC Health. “The potential consequences of you bringing flu or COVID-19 to your family holiday gathering or acquiring it and bringing it back home afterwards isn’t worth it.”

Remember that turning down events will still likely bring up feelings of disappointment and sadness — for your family as well as yourself. Dr. Bennett says that “For both sides, acknowledging some of the negative emotions and the sadness or disappointment is important. Sometimes, people believe that ignoring emotions is the same as controlling them, but it’s not; it’s just suppressing them.”

Kelly adds that the holidays can also highlight feelings of grief. “Grief can result from any number of losses including the death of a loved one, the inability to see friends and family, and the loss of safety, certainty, and normalcy during the pandemic. Give yourself permission to feel whatever feelings come up for you.”

She adds that you should “Plan ahead so that you have a sense of control over holiday activities. It is also okay to set limits so that you are not overextended.”

Self-Care Is Even More Important

It will be more tempting this year to use food, alcohol, nicotine or other mood-altering substances to deal with stress — but these aren’t the healthiest ways to lift your mood. 

“Focus on taking care of yourself physically by getting adequate sleep, feeding your body nutritious food, limiting alcohol and other substances, and fitting in some physical activity,” says Kelly. “Pay attention to financial self-care, as well. Set a budget and don’t get pressured into spending more than you can afford during the holiday season.”When approaching this holiday season, remind yourself that it’s perfectly normal to feel stressed, anxious, or even depressed. Prepare for the holidays to look different, and take this challenge as an opportunity to build new traditions. Acknowledge whatever feelings come up for you — and set boundaries where you need to. Know that you can reach out to a licensed therapist for help or advice at any time, anywhere by using Talkspace. We’re wishing you a safe and healthy holiday season!

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