“COVID-related travel restrictions and safety concerns will certainly impact the mental well-being of many of us,” says Nikole Benders-Hadi, MD, psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health at Doctor on Demand. “Especially if time with family is already limited to a few times a year around the holidays, it can be devastating to have that taken away.”
Since it's important to handle these challenging circumstances in the healthiest way possible, keep reading for six expert-vetted tips to reduce the weight of guilt you may be carrying about not seeing family over the holidays this year.
1. Have an open conversation with your family
“If you only see your family a few times a year, it could be a major disappointment for people to not see each other, especially for older people who might have less opportunities to socialize and sincerely miss their adult children and grandchildren,” says psychotherapist David Strah, LMFT. So, when letting them know you won’t be attending this year’s in-person gathering, approach the conversation as openly and kindly as possible, without compromising your own values or safety.
To achieve this, Strah suggests trying to understand your family member's point of view (and restating it until they agree that you got it), then expressing your own viewpoint. “You might add some factual information such as ‘our state is requiring people to quarantine for two weeks if they leave the state, so therefore I can’t visit.’ Ask family members to please respect your opinion, even if they don’t agree.”
2. Acknowledge and accept your guilty feelings
When guilt pops up during this time, Strah reminds that these feelings will pass, but it’s important to acknowledge and accept them in the meantime. “Guilty feelings are often our unconscious feelings of not living up to someone else’s expectations or desires,” he says.
“Tell yourself that you only need to live up to your own expectations and that you don’t have to feel guilty for making decisions to keep yourself, your loved ones, and others healthy.” —David Strah, LMFT
So to cope, practice self-compassion. After all, you’re doing the right (read: safest) thing for yourself, your family, and the world at large. “Give yourself a break,” he adds. “Tell yourself that you only need to live up to your own expectations and that you don’t have to feel guilty for making decisions to keep yourself, your loved ones, and others healthy.”
3. Create a new holiday tradition this year
Now for some good news: You can still get together with your family in other safer ways. “Virtual connections can absolutely create a positive sense of community,” says Dr. Benders-Hadi. “It can be exciting to establish new family traditions and celebrate the holidays in ways you haven't before. Find alternative ways to stay connected with loved ones to share memories from afar.”
You can exchange gifts and open them together over FaceTime or Zoom, send flowers, bake and send homemade goodies, or even take turns sharing what you’re all grateful for amid this wild year. If many of your family members live far apart, consider organizing a virtual party to celebrate with those you don’t otherwise get the chance to. Strah also suggests thinking of your favorite family traditions and how they can be replicated over a video call. “Remember that, ultimately, people want to connect emotionally,” he adds, “so think of ways you can still connect even if you can’t be together in person.”
4. Find healthy coping mechanisms
Instead of dwelling on any negative emotions that may surface, Dr. Benders-Hadi suggests filling your time with hobbies or activities. Go for a hike, take a yoga class, meditate, or find other coping styles that work for you to reduce stress. “Just make sure you’re not avoiding acknowledging your feelings by keeping them masked under the guise of a busy schedule,” she warns.
5. Consult with a therapist
“COVID and the holiday season are not a good mix, especially for those people already feeling lonely,” says Dr. Benders-Hadi. And when you see folks still celebrating together IRL on social media, the FOMO can also be real; however, if you start to experience overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, or isolation, consider seeking help from a therapist.
“If you’re seeing changes in yourself or a loved one that are concerning [or otherwise indicative] of something more serious going on, don't hesitate to reach out for help from a mental-health professional,” she says. Speaking to a therapist can help you achieve a sense of peace and learn how to cope in the healthiest way possible for you during this upcoming holiday season (and throughout the rest of the year).
6. Remember that this is temporary
Keep in mind that this stressful time is not permanent—once the pandemic ends, you’ll be able to reunite with everyone. “Planning your next in-person gathering with family can help give you something to look forward to,” says Dr. Bendes-Hadi. Hopefully 2020 is the only year many people are forced to contend with the guilt of not seeing family over the holidays and we'll all be celebrating milestones in person sooner than later. Until then, at least we still have other meaningful ways to stay connected.
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