by Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, President of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.
The holiday season usually is a joyful time. Many families look forward to gathering with relatives and friends, exchanging gifts, and celebrating traditions. In a normal year, the holidays can even be a bit stressful. But COVID-19 and physical distancing have brought a new kind of stress to the 2020 holiday season. Worries and anxiety about the increase in cases of COVID-19 and its impact can be overwhelming, especially at what is supposed to be a “happy” time of year. Although this year is very different than any we have experienced before, it is possible to find some peace and even joy during this time.
Here are a few tips for coping with stress during the holiday season this year.
Acknowledge your feelings. Perhaps you have lost someone close to you or you can't be with your friends and loved ones, realize that it is normal to feel sadness and grief. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.
Reach out to you community. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out contact with your community or religious groups. Many may have websites, online support groups, social media sites or virtual events. They can offer support and companionship.
Be realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like last year. Even though your holiday plans may look and feel different this year, find creative ways to celebrate.
Use technology to your advantage. FaceTime or Zoom with family and friends to keep family rituals going. Set a date and time for everyone to make cookies together, decorate the tree, light the menorah, say a prayer, have a meal, or open presents.
Set aside grievances and differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.
Stick to an agreed upon budget. Before you do your gift shopping, decide how much money you can realistically afford to spend and stick to your budget. Give thoughtful gifts which have a deeper meaning or consider donating to a charity you are passionate about in someone's name.
Make some time for yourself. Find an activity you enjoy. Take a break by yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm. Some options may include listening to soothing music, watching a movie or reading a book.
Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Continue to try and eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, and include regular physical activity in your daily routine. Consume alcohol in moderation. Perhaps set aside time for deep-breathing exercises, meditation or yoga.
Learn to recognize your holiday stress triggers and relievers. Financial pressures and personal demands are two common triggers. Also, beware of unhealthy stress relievers. Holiday stress may cause some people to fall into bad habits such as smoking, drinking or eating too much.
It is important to remember that during a “normal holiday season many people may feel sad, lonely, and even depressed. This year it may be even more difficult, especially if your family is experiencing added hardships that may be affected by the additional stress of:
- job loss, homelessness, not enough food, problems with remote work and learning.
- a parent or caregiver with mental health, substance useor health issues.
- being a frontline worker
- caring for a child with special health care needsor a mental health condition.
- grieving the loss of a loved one.
Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings do not go away, talk to your doctor, a psychiatrist, or a mental health professional. Do not suffer in silence. Remember that with help there is hope.