Michelle Litwer, Psy.D. | Staff Psychologist:

The holidays can be both an exciting and stressful time in our lives. During a global pandemic, stress levels are likely already high, and you may feel like it is harder than ever to cope with the state of the world. I remember having a conversation with my in-laws and on the verge of tears thinking, “It’s so unfair that we can’t spend Thanksgiving together this year. This is the worst year yet.” 

It is completely valid to feel increased levels of frustration, fear, irritability, a loss of control, difficulties tolerating change and uncertainty, and feelings of being disconnected during this holiday season. Although it may feel like there aren’t many ways to tolerate these uncomfortable emotions, I am hoping to share some tips that may help you feel more resilient this holiday season.

1. Gratitude

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, gratitude practice has greatly helped me appreciate the positive aspects of my life, and the people and things that are truly special to me. This doesn’t mean that I ignore the painful situations that arise and minimize my struggles, it just means that I pay attention to and focus on the things that truly give me joy and meaning in my life. For example, although I am not able to see certain family members this year for the holidays, I am grateful that I have spent more time during the pandemic connecting with my grandparents across the country on Facetime/ on the phone than I typically would. I am also grateful that this year has increased my desire and passion for cooking, as I put together a list of desserts to make and share with my family via Zoom this year.

2. Embracing change and increasing flexibility

Your holiday plans may have changed several times within weeks. This may be confusing and frustrating to accept. You may find that you have to plan ahead even further in advance to truly figure out a safe plan for you and your family. I remember feeling stressed when thinking about how long would have to quarantine for me to see my family during the holidays, how will I get my groceries, am I able to walk into that store and return my items? Flexibility and accepting change during this uncertain time can be very helpful. Think about the positives/benefits of embracing change. How can this be useful for me as a person? Am I more resilient now that I have dealt with so much change in such a short time? How can I be more open minded, flexible, and “go with the flow” during this holiday season. Notice if you are fighting against change (i.e., “it shouldn’t be this way, I should be able to follow my holiday traditions such as last year”). Notice how fighting/resisting change may increase stress, anger, frustration, and hopelessness. Try saying something like, “Although it is hard for me to accept not seeing my family this year, these are the facts, there are causes for this very painful reality, and I don’t have to like it or love it. I know that this is what I have to do, and it is temporary.”

3. Setting limits with others

It is important to recognize that everyone has different limits, values, and beliefs during a pandemic. It may be difficult to assert yourself to your friends and family during the holidays. You may feel afraid to be rejected, judged, or cause conflict with family. This is understandable; however, this may cause more stress in the long term, and increased feelings of guilt and regret. This may be the year you assert your needs more than ever, such as setting limits on engaging in large gatherings, wearing masks inside/outside the house, hugging, eating from the same platter, or spending an extended amount of time together. For example, you may assert yourself by stating, “I would love to see you this year for Thanksgiving, however, I don’t believe it’s worth the risk. I don’t want to regret this in the long term. Let’s figure out a plan. Perhaps we take a 20-minute walk together outside, or do a dessert making challenge via Zoom. I know this may be hard for you to accept. I really appreciate it.”

4. Cope ahead and prepare to make the holidays as enjoyable as possible

One of my favorite skills is coping ahead, which means that you are preparing for a distressing situation that is happening in the future. By imagining how you will tolerate and cope with the distressing event in your mind, you are more likely to be successful and effective and feel a sense of mastery. Coping ahead may mean planning how you will assert yourself to your family members and friends, making travel plans that may be stressful, planning alternative activities to present to the family (i.e., having an Ugly sweater Christmas Party with your family on Zoom), or tolerating other family members’ emotions during holiday gatherings.

For example, it may be difficult to hear about other family members stressors they’re experiencing this year. You may feel overwhelmed and not know how to be helpful or effective in these moments. You may cope ahead by acknowledging the stressful situation that may arise (i.e., feeling angry at the dinner table/ on Zoom when family members argue or talk about painful situations). Then, it is important to consider what skills will be helpful during this time. Perhaps, taking a few deep breaths to increase relaxation, stepping away from the table/screen, validate the other person’s experience (i.e., “of course it makes sense you are feeling confused with how to best parent your daughter, there are so many ways to go about it”), and normalize your own experience and use self-encouragement (i.e., “family arguments are a normal part of the holidays. I can get through this. I’ve tolerated this before”).

5. Getting creative

Truly accepting reality that the holidays will not look the same this year, means planning ahead and brainstorming other ways to stay connected during this time. You may feel burnt out from screens (I know I do) and feel less motivated to connect with family on facetime, zoom, skype, or other platforms. I admit that I dread thinking about more time on my computer. I also know that this is the best that I will get this year, and I will have to make the most out of it.

This year, it is important to find ordinary ways to dread the holidays less and find a sense of normalcy. Here are some creative ideas for the holidays this year:

  • If you are spending holidays on Zoom this year, think about engaging in a family gift exchange. Each family member can send each other a gift and share them on screens. This could increase connection, gratitude, and an overall sense of joy and happiness.
  • Something that can spice up the Zoom calls are creating funny backgrounds, wearing costumes (i.e., ugly sweater party), props, or doing a show and tell of items in the home. This can increase connection and spark some fun in the call! You may also have the urge to be in pajamas if you are spending your holidays on the computer. If you appreciate and enjoy dressing up, go ahead and get dressed to the nines!
  • If you live close to family, schedule a fun drive in to see each other socially distanced. I have a friend who is decorating her car with holiday cheer, making playlists to listen to when all hanging outside, and bringing her own dishes to enjoy briefly outdoors.  
  • Engage in a recipe exchange and have each family member be accountable for a dish. Enjoy these dishes in person or via computer. Share the most special part of the dish and engage in mindful eating!
  • Send a handwritten gratitude message to a family member and read them all out loud to each other. This can feel very special and heartwarming. 

Despite all of these helpful tools, it is totally okay to grieve holiday traditions and memories this 2020 holiday season. We are all in this together. In the short-term, hopefully we are making decisions that will help us move towards normalcy in the long-term. This is an incredibly difficult time, and it is okay to feel sad, stuck, hopeless, and anxious. Validating and acknowledging these emotions will help you regulate emotions and normalize the experiences you are having that are most definitely shared around the world.  

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