It’s natural to crave the interpersonal connections usually associated with this time of year, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, especially at this particular moment in time. “After months of being sequestered and at the mercy of dreary routines, it’s only natural to crave a delight-filled holiday break,” she says. “However, with the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, it’s important to shift our expectations for the upcoming holiday season.”
With this shift may come unpleasant emotions such as sadness or frustration, and Tim Yovankin, MD, a Chicago-based psychiatrist and the medical director of Greywood Health Center, says it’s important to acknowledge those emotions and then try to strike a middle ground between the two extremes of repressing them and letting them overwhelm you. “A degree of compartmentalization is healthy—like everything else there is a time and place for it—but do not go overboard with it,” he advises. “Take solace in knowing that these difficult times will pass, and remember, you have more control over the situation than you realize.”
That control, as you might expect, lies in the mind—it’s about reframing reality and making the most out of what we do have and can do this year. “It’s important to focus on enjoying the holidays in new ways,” says Dr. Manly. Below, a few tips for making it through these last garbage months of a garbage year, even if you can’t share an IRL cup of cocoa with your favorite granny.
How to cope with a holiday season unlike any other
1. Fully engage in whatever activities you keep on the calendar
In any other year, you might find yourself escaping into your phone after day two with the fam; however, this year offers an opportunity to be more present. “With less to do and fewer places to go, this holiday season is a perfect opportunity to slow down and really savor the traditions we can still partake in,” says Dr. Yovankin. “Whether it’s baking cookies, decorating your home, or wrapping presents with loved ones, approach each task with a grateful heart and give it your undivided attention.” In other words, seize opportunities for mindfulness that will help you experience things more fully than you may have in more abundant years.
2. Prioritize connection nonetheless
Since the holidays are so much about connecting with others, the fact that many of us can’t be together this year is a real downer. Still, both Dr. Yovankin and Dr. Manly suggest making relationships a priority nonetheless. “Although in-person visits with beloved relatives may be off-limits this year due to COVID-19, remember that technology allows us to connect in other ways,” says Dr. Manly. “Whether you have a [virtual] tree-trimming party with grandma, complete with an adorable ornament or two you sent in advance, or a Christmas movie popcorn party via Zoom with friends, strive to focus on the joy of being connected in new ways.”
Let’s be honest, though; many of us have had enough with the virtual meet-ups. When you just can’t obsess over the self-styled pandemic hair reflected back at you for even a moment more, Dr. Yovankin has another suggestion. “Take the time to send out some hand-written notes; not only are they thoughtful and fun to receive, the exercise of putting pen to paper is also therapeutic,” he says. “Reach out to five people that you haven’t spoken to in a while and five people that may need some extra love this season.”
3. Exert control through creation
So remember that sense of control Dr. Yovankin said you actually still have this holiday season? He explains that one way to flex it is by being intentional with your time, e.g. by using it to engaged in creative tasks. “Consider taking on a new hobby or challenge yourself to learn something new,” he says. “Homemade candles, hand-knit sweaters, and quilts make for wonderful gifts, so why not give it a try?” Dr. Manly also recommends DIY gifting, adding that there’s yet another benefit to this approach, too. “The creative process is known to reduce stress, decrease anxiety, and create a flood of feel-good neurochemicals,” she says.
4. If you’re “stuck” in town, give back to your community
Sure, you’d rather be in whatever godforsaken-yet-beloved town your meemaw lives in this holiday season than the place you’ve been more or less trapped in for the last nine months, but this less-than-ideal scenario could provide an opportunity for you to further embed yourself in your community. ‘Tis the season for giving, so why not give back to your neighbors? “With many organizations going virtual, it can be challenging to find meaningful ways to give back. On the other hand, numerous groups have gotten quite creative at sparking up interest and participation via online platforms. Taking the time to research some available opportunities can remind you of the good that is going on in this world and may just land you with a new avenue for involvement,” says Dr. Yovankin.
5. Try not to dwell on the past
Even the year your parents refused to gift you any more inexplicably-covetable Pogs (look it up, kids) was better than this year. That is a fact; however, comparing past seasons with this global trauma is not going to do your mental health any favors. “Comparisons—although natural—tend to minimize joy and increase feelings of depression and stress,” says Dr. Manly. “For example, saying ‘Ah, this year’s holiday celebrations are uniquely quiet and beautiful in their own way’ is far more uplifting than a sour, ‘The holidays are awful and dreary; everything was so much better last year’.” Gratitude lists always help!
6. Get ahead of the game
One way to feel a bit of that otherwise lacking holiday spirit and reduce your stress is to prepare and even send holiday care packages well before the December holidays. “Not only will your early preparations pay off in avoiding the stress of last-minute efforts, but the mood-boosting effects of shopping, creating, and wrapping can be powerful,” says Dr. Manly.
7. Make December the new January
In a “normal” year, January is sort of the time when everyone hunkers down to recover from overindulging in everything—including family time. While you may prefer to be surrounded by loved ones, getting into good-natured arguments and taking turkey *to the face*, it’s not the worst thing to have more time open up for yourself—especially since we’re currently recovering from a lot more than just Uncle Ed’s unsolicited political rants. “Although it’s normal to feel a bit like Scrooge now and again, the slower pace of this year’s holiday season allows for more self-care than ever,” says Dr. Manly. And with the right kind of TLC, she says, it might be easier to get into good spirit. “Whether you treat yourself to pine-scented candles, take a bath in holiday-scented bubbles, or enjoy a day of baking and decorating delightful sugar cookies, strive to cherish every moment of the holiday season,” she says.
8. Tend to your mental health
Dr. Manly echoes Dr. Yovankin’s sentiments around allowing yourself to feel all the feels as you navigate this unprecedented experience. “Trust that your feelings are normal and that you’re not alone,” she says. It’ll be important, she explains, to lean on whatever mental health tools you have in your toolbox in order to moderate them and keep them from dragging you down. “Whether you journal, talk to friends, chat with family members, or reach out to a psychotherapist, remember to take good care of your mental health,” she says.
9. If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one…
The holidays tend to be tough for those grieving and this year, there are even more of us in that category than usual. Both experts advise engaging in support activities, whatever those may look like. “One thing people learn in therapy is to identify their support network,” says Dr. Yankovin. “They often realize that they had been feeling isolated in part because they had considered their circle too narrowly or with the mindset that others are already too over-burdened to be helpful. Think about friends, family members, neighbors, colleagues—anyone who can sympathize and lend a good listening ear.”
Once you’ve gone the distance of reaching out, it’s important not to hold back—even if you feel bad bumming someone out around the holidays. “If you are calling someone because you are grieving, some emotional outpouring goes with the territory,” Dr. Yankovin says. Without it, the grieving process can get stalled; that’s not helpful for anyone.” As he points out, most people have experienced loss at some point in their lives and can relate to what you’re going through and how much they needed support in that time, too.
You shouldn’t wait until the 11th hour to do this outreach, either—in other words, don’t try to tough it out alone until you emotionally collapse on, say, New Year’s Eve, when it might be more difficult to get someone on the line. And if you think you might benefit from professional help, the same advice holds: do it sooner rather than later.
Proactively connecting in this way is even more important than it would be in past years since holiday gatherings will be more sparse due to pandemic precautions, adds Dr. Manly. “The grieving process is often smoother and less challenging when supportive loved ones are a part of the process,” she says. And if you’ll be largely or even completely physically isolated out of necessity, she notes that it’ll also be mission critical to engage in extra self-care and “little indulgences”—whatever you normally do when you need a little extra TLC, dial it up to a 10. Self-touch could be especially helpful this year or, if you’re someone who needs a little guidance, virtual healing sessions might be a good option to explore, too.
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