A new holiday season is underway, and our second with the coronavirus pandemic. Since many of us have (hopefully) gotten vaccinated (don’t forget boosters!), it takes some of the stress off the festivities this year. So while we should all continue using caution (don’t forget masks!), here are some tips to help you enjoy this most wonderful time of year.

Coping with holiday anxiety and stress

Sharon Lee, PhD, is a psychologist at the Center for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at The Miriam Hospital. She says, “Even under the best of circumstances, the holidays can be both a joyful and stressful time. With this enduring pandemic, this mix of feelings may be amplified.”

Dr. Lee reminds us that while some of us may be grateful to finally celebrate with loved ones, some may feel even more isolated or lonely, and some of us may experience both.  She says, “All of these emotions are valid, and it makes complete sense that people may feel a wide range of emotions after the last few years. It is important to acknowledge the full range of emotions and the validity of those emotions -- there is no emotional playbook for how to feel while celebrating the holidays during a pandemic."

Jon Brett, PhD, is a clinical psychologist at the partial hospital program at Newport Hospital. Dr. Brett said, “The holidays are a special but often difficult and stressful time in any given year. This year is the second holiday season to be impacted by the coronavirus and all of its collateral and long-term damage.” Dr. Brett notes that long-term fallout of the virus is causing a spike in mental health issues, including an increase of anxiety and depression, substance use and suicidal behavior. 

A different focus for the holidays

Dr. Brett says it may be wise to approach the holidays differently than in years past. Let’s reimagine the holidays and focus on the things we can do to celebrate the season while still keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

He offers the following suggestions:

Connect with others. Traditional gatherings with loved ones and extended family may not be possible, but your connection to others is still vital. Brett says, “Connection is a basic and primitive human need, and isolation is a quick track to loneliness and depression.” While Facetime, Zoom, texts, emails, and telephone calls may feel like poor substitutes, they are so valuable right now and should be used to stay in touch with family and friends.

Do for others. Doing for others is also a helpful focus, whether it be volunteering at a food bank or picking up groceries for an elderly relative. Altruism not only captures the spirit of the season, but it is also good for the soul.

Stick with good habits. Taking care of yourself and your physical health is critical during these trying times.

•    Get enough sleep.
•    Eat in a healthy manner.
•    Get sufficient physical exercise, including being outside if possible.
•    Keep some form of schedule. As humans, we tend to function best when we stick to some form of routine.

Take care of your mental health. While your physical health is vital, so too is your mental health and emotional well-being. During this challenging holiday season, Dr. Brett recommends the following:

  • Limit exposure to media coverage. Too much exposure to all the news surrounding the pandemic can lead to overreaction or panic. Limit the time you spend on media, and be sure to rely on reputable, credible sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Screen your screen time. Binge watching your favorite shows or videos, or just spending too much online time can reinforce lethargy. Instead replace it with more creative and productive uses of your time. Read a book. Start a new hobby. Learn a new skill or language.
  • Connect with your spiritual side. A spiritual practice is defined as any activity that lifts your spirit and creates hope and faith, even for a short period during trying times. A walk in the woods, sitting at the beach or meditation are all examples you may find helpful.

Prepare yourself for gathering with family

Alyssa Norris, PhD, is a research scientists in the Center for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at The Miriam Hospital. She says, "For many of us, the holidays are a time to get together – with coworkers, friends, family, neighbors, and our communities. Even though we may love the people we connect with, reconnecting can be stressful, particularly for those of us who do not feel accepted, seen, or validated by our families of origin or other important communities.”  

Dr. Norris advises it might be helpful to reflect on what you consider boundaries with loved ones before you get together. She recommends asking yourself if there are things you do or do not feel comfortable discussing or doing, and whether there are things that loved ones do that cause you stress or distress. 

She says, “Identifying some of these behaviors in advance can give you a good idea of how to prepare and care for yourself when those stressors arise. Try discussing your concerns with a trusted person in your life, such as a friend, another family member, or a therapist. And always remember that your boundaries, and you, are valid."

Supporting children through another uncertain holiday season

As the pandemic ebbs and flows, it is challenging adults to cope with some now familiar and some new stressors. Our children may also be feeling the strain. As we enter 2022, some new phrases have entered our vocabulary—Delta and Omicron variants, vaccines for children, booster shots, and supply chain shortages to name a few. Our new and ever-evolving “normal” can come with uncertainty and worry.

Margaret Paccione, PhD, is the director of clinical innovation at Bradley Hospital. Dr. Paccione said, “Although we may want to shelter our children, it is important to provide them with honest, accurate, age-appropriate information. Acknowledge that the holidays may be a bit unusual again this year but assure them that the season will still be fun and enjoyable.”

Talking is key, but first things first. Dr. Paccione says, “Kids are quick to pick up on attitudes and feelings of the adults in their world.” Before talking with your children, she suggests:

  • Work through your own worries with other adults. 
  • Have open and frequent family conversations. Explain what is changing and what kids can count on from past celebrations. 
  • Remember, kids take comfort in routine and predictability, so as much as possible hold constant what your family has enjoyed in previous years. 

Dr. Paccione also recommends encouraging kids to discuss their feelings with you and other trusted adults.  “Remain the source of truth for your kids -- not social media or friends. Youngsters of any age will need comfort and reassurance,” she says. Convey realistic confidence in your child’s safety and your expectations that the holidays will be fun. Adults need to express more certainty with younger children and deal with real ambiguity in older kids.

It’s important to remember that each child is unique, as is each situation. “Change can be both exhilarating and worrisome. On one hand, the newness and unpredictability of the season brings excitement. On the other hand kids take comfort and enjoyment from the usual,” Dr. Paccione says.

The family traditions like family gatherings, holiday foods, songs, and traditional faith services can provide a sense of security for children. Finally Dr. Paccione adds, “This year is likely to be different than previous years, but different can also be better!” Remember, providing factual information and helping kids feel safe will go a long way toward creating enjoyable holiday experiences. 

How to celebrate the 2021 holidays

While we have vaccines this year, the coronavirus is still spreading, with yet another variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued their recommendations for how to celebrate the holidays safely this year. You can find them here:

  • Have a plan. Decide what types of activities or events you and your family are comfortable attending. Going to an outdoor tree lighting ceremony wearing masks is quite different than an indoor dinner with other households. Understand that there are different levels of risk in different situations, and plan ahead for what type of activities you and your family will take part in. The CDC also offers tips on how to plan a safe gathering, large or small.
  • Be flexible.  Dr. Lee says, "Flexibility is key to navigating this second round of celebrating the holidays during a global pandemic. The good news is that we have already done this once before!” Dr. Lee says taking what we learned from last year and building in flexibility into our holiday plans can help with managing expectations.  “Now is the time to practice many of the values that the pandemic has put us in touch with -- patience, grace, and compassion," Lee says.
  • Manage your expectations. Dr. Norris says, “It can be helpful to simply notice our expectations for the holidays.  Many of us enter the holiday season with fond memories – cheerful music, favorite foods and traditions, the crisp New England air – and so we think of the holidays as bringing us only positive things.” She notes that sometimes we may forget the holidays are a disruption to our usual schedule, which can also be quite stressful. Her advice? “Be gentle with yourself and whatever feelings the season throws your way. Feeling stressed with all these changes (even ones we look forward to!) makes perfect sense. Try to make room for the parts of the season that do bring you joy by reflecting and scheduling those in advance to make sure they do not pass you by!"

The power of gratitude
The holidays are a time in which we are asked to “count our blessings” and be grateful. The concept of gratitude is one that should not be overlooked as it can have an impact on your well-being.

Dr. Brett noted, “This year, it may be particularly important to dig deep to identify those things, people, and experiences in our lives, large and small, for which we are grateful, and be extra mindful of them. That gratitude for what is special and dear is an antidote to the helplessness and hopelessness that can come with these difficult times.”

Teaching children about gratitude can also be beneficial for both adult and child! We have an interesting blog post on this topic for you. The holidays are a wonderful time to begin this practice and enjoy the benefits that come with being grateful. Also, be sure to take some time to check out our new Bradley Hospital Mindcast podcast on "Instilling Gratitude in Children." 

This year, this holiday season, may again be challenging. But we can not only get through these difficult times, but we can also actually still enjoy this holiday season and make it a time to remember!

If you’re struggling during these times, there is help. For adults, call the Lifespan Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Access Center at 401-606-0606 or visit our website for more information. For children in crisis, call Kids' Link RI, a 24-hour triage service and referral network, at 1-855-543-5465.

Lifespan Blog Team

The Lifespan Blog Team is working to provide you with timely and pertinent information that will help keep you and your family happy and healthy.