Navigating a Pandemic Holiday Season
The air is crisp and everywhere you go, there are bright and colorful lights, shimmering garland, and decked-out trees in windows. Images of Santa, snowmen, and angels abound. It looks like every other holiday season, but this year feels vastly different for most of us.
As a trauma therapist, I have heard a variety of opinions on how the holidays ought to be handled this year. The primary issue, not surprisingly, is whether or not to gather with loved ones. A minority of people I have talked to seem unaffected by all the restrictions. Many express feelings of being worn out by all the isolation. They are ready to “do whatever it takes” to connect to others and year-end holidays, like no other days of the year, provide what feels like a perfect and acceptable time to make an exception to all the pandemic precautions.
You may have a strong reaction to that last sentence. Some may be adamant that everyone is overreacting to the pandemic. Others may feel the decision is obvious, exclaiming it is silly to even think of gathering this year. After all, a day is a day – calling it Christmas or Hannukah or Kwanzaa should make no difference, right?
The answer is not a simple as you might think.
What people do for holidays become etched into their lives as precious traditions. From a mental health and stability viewpoint, traditions are often an essential part of life. They can keep us grounded and connected to others and a shared history. Life moves so fast that days, weeks, even months can pass before we touch base with friends and family – but December rarely passes without plans to visit home.
Customs are not the only issue here, though. This may surprise you, but from the vantage point of neuroscience, traditions act as markers that signal safety and security to the brain and nervous system. Believe it or not, there are parts of our brains that, unbeknownst to us on a conscious level, constantly scan our environment for signals that all is well. Going into detail on this is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say, lots of red and green in December is a marker of security in the brain. So are family gatherings.
If you are struggling with all of this, you are not alone – and you are not bad for leaning in either direction. There are arguments for celebrating “as usual” and for chucking the holiday altogether this year. There simply is no “just do…” about this. There are, however, a few things that might help you navigate the endless, “should I or shouldn’t I?” rolling around in your head.
First Things First – Be Honest
Some people may be quite relieved to have an acceptable excuse to opt-out of holiday gatherings. Such events can be overwhelming. If this fits you, do not allow guilt to take up residence in your head and heart. People will indeed hear your, “Not this year,” as rejection, which is a painful experience. People who take it that way may engage in a variety of tactics to persuade you to change your mind. Stay the course. Those you have a safe and loving relationship with will see your behavior over time and know you don’t only say no to them. Once they see this, any painful feelings will heal. On that note…
Remember the Big Picture
Although tradition is important, it is also critical we remember life is more than just any single day or event. Gathering for and celebrating a tradition is not worth your life or the lives of others. It may not even be worth a bout of poor health. Only you can make the decision about what level of risk any assembling together may pose for you and your loved ones. When everything has been considered and you are still debating whether to go or not, consider the following questions:
If I go and I inadvertently infect someone and they become ill, how will I feel about that? How might that affect my relationships?
Is the risk of my physical health worth it to preserve my mental health?
Am I thinking in terms of the big picture and not only what feels good in the moment?
If you do all your due diligence and decide the answer to gathering for holidays is yes, then definitely…
Use Reasonable Precautions
It is easy to fall prey to the belief that if you know someone well, you won’t catch the virus from them. However, according to the World Health Organization, you are more likely to catch the disease from people you sit close to – and we are more likely to sit close to our friends and family. Therefore, even if you are visiting loved ones, you will want to adhere to all of the known and scientifically-backed protections, such as staying six feet apart, washing your hands frequently, wearing a mask, and staying home when you are sick. It may feel a bit awkward if you wear a mask around your friends. They may even feel a bit offended. One thing that can help is to say that you have made it a “personal policy” to wear a mask all the time with others. After all, since it is possible to be an asymptomatic carrier, this is the best route to take.
However, if you decide to stay home and on your own, it can help to…
If you choose to do something different for the holidays this year, your brain may send out signals to your body that something is wrong. Guilt, fear, and even anger may result. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware in the present moment, without judgment. It is a state of allowing rather than controlling. The idea is to allow your feelings to come and go without adding to them or minimizing them. Feelings are not facts. Experiencing the sensation of guilt does not always mean you have done something wrong. Here are some ideas to help if this is the route you take this year.
Talk to Yourself…Often
When you have made a thoughtful decision that goes against well-established traditions, it can help to create some truth-based statements or gather a motto from a trusted person and repeat that to yourself all throughout the day. For example: “Staying home for the holidays does not make me a bad person.”
Find a Focal Point
The holidays have a meaning in our brains. Therefore, finding other themes on which to focus, such as gratitude, giving, rest, or rejuvenation, can give us the ammunition we need to retrain our brain to find meaning in our new experience.
Create New Traditions
I lived in India for many years, but always came home for Christmas. One year, this was not possible, and it left me feeling really glum. To tolerate the day, I reached out to all the local ex-pats I could find and invited anyone who felt the same to come over. Instead of trees, gifts, and turkey, we had tea sandwiches, Christmas Carol Bingo, and candles. It was one of the best holidays of my life. Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to try something new! You just might like it more!
With respect to new, here are a few ideas to get you started:
Join family and friends on video chat – put them on your phone and carry them around
Have a “Text-based Scavenger Hunt” – create a list of things to look and listen for and every time someone finds/hears something on the list, they text a code word. The first one to find them all wins a small prize you mail to each other
If you live alone, do all the same things you would do as if your family is there. Wrap a present for yourself, decorate, pick a new recipe, and set the table with fancy dishes. YOU MATTER TOO and I cannot think of a better time or way to show it right now!
This year is unlike any other we have ever experienced. It will take innovation, patience, and determination to push through the holidays. Allow yourself to follow your values in making your decisions. If anything goes awry, believe yourself capable of setting things right again.
You (yes you) can do this!
Stay safe and well. Happy Holidays from the bottom of my heart!
Written by book author, blogger, & educational/motivational speaker, Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP. Founder and owner of Potential Finders Network, Hannah provides consultation, training, and personal development services. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. If you have topics you want to suggest, please don’t hesitate to contact her at Hannah@PotentialFinders.com and check out www.PotentialFinders.com or Facebook to learn more.