The year 2020 has been historic for so many reasons, but the coronavirus pandemic may be the biggest. The pandemic has affected just about every aspect of our lives. Now it appears the 2020 holiday season will be impacted as well.

For so many of us, the holidays are a time to gather with friends and family, enjoy family traditions, and often, share a meal. Unfortunately, these meaningful events may need to be changed this year while we are trying to prevent the spread of the virus.

More anxiety and stress

While there is often a certain amount of stress associated with the holidays, this year, the virus is compounding that anxiety.

Jon Brett, PhD, is the program director of 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. Unfortunately, the COVID crisis has created a profound level of anxiety and stress. All of this is occurring during the season that we would typically give thanks and show gratitude for all that we have in our lives.”

That’s why this year 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.

A different focus for the holidays

The 2020 holidays will seem very different, but there are ways we can still enjoy the holidays while coping with our current reality. Dr. Brett offers the following suggestions:

Connecting with others. While traditional gatherings with loved ones and extended family may not be possible, 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.

Doing 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.

Physical self-care. Taking care of yourself 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 emotional well-being

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.
  • Try to stay busy. Brett says, “Excess, empty downtime can result in pessimistic, negative, or depressive thoughts. It helps to be mindful of this impact of isolation, so you can correct it with more reality based, hopeful truths.”
  • 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.

Helping children cope

While adults are experiencing a great deal of upheaval this year, children are also feeling the strain. The changes that will take place for the holidays can add to their 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 will be unusual this year but assure them that they will be enjoyable none the less.”

Talking with children is key. Dr. Paccione said, “Explain why these changes are necessary – to keep the family safe this year.” She also recommends encouraging them to discuss their feelings with you and other trusted adults. Youngsters of any age will need comfort and reassurance. Convey realistic confidence in their safety. Adults need to express more certainty with younger children and deal with real ambiguity in older kids.

Each child is unique, as is each situation. Change can be both welcomed and worrisome. On one hand kids take comfort and enjoyment from the usual. The family traditions like holiday foods, songs, and traditional faith services (likely virtual this year) can provide a sense of security for children.

Dr. Paccione said, “This year is likely to be different, so why not embrace different! In place of your usual holiday meal why not have a mac and cheese bake off; for Hanukkah, make donuts instead of potato latke; for Christmas, have an Easter egg hunt; for New Years, celebrate 1961 instead of 2021.” The point is to plan out of the box, together as a family, and have fun doing it.

It’s OK to say no

For many, the holidays are centered around the gathering of family and friends, with food and drink. But this year, the coronavirus has made being around others in a closed space without masks one of the riskiest things we can do.

The advice from experts this year is to “hunker down” and spend your holiday with your immediate household members only. Many may have difficulty saying no to parents, siblings, or others when invited for a holiday celebration. But given the risks, it’s important to learn to be comfortable saying no to these invitations this year.

Some tips:
  • Have a plan. Decide what types of activities or events you are comfortable with your family 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 what type of activities you and your family will take part in.
  • Be honest and sincere. When declining an invitation, it’s best to do so over the phone rather than a text or email. That way you can express your sincerity and regret with your tone. Simply explain that with the virus, your family is being extra cautious. Be open and honest and try to convey your message with warmth.
  • Be creative. While your holidays may be different, they can still be fun. Plan a set time to connect through Zoom – like when opening gifts or sending cheers with a virtual toast before dinner. Make plans for how you can have a delayed celebration when it is safer to do so. Create a new tradition with your family and plan a way to make the holiday feel special as a group.

The power of gratitude

The holidays are a time in which we are asked to “count our blessings” and to 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! Jennifer Brown, a licensed mental health counselor, with Bradley Hospital, wrote an interesting blog post on this topic. The holidays are a wonderful time to begin this practice and enjoy the benefits that come with gratitude.

This year, this holiday season, will no doubt be challenging. But we can not only get through these difficult times, 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 children in crisis, call Kids' Link RI a 24-hour triage service and referral network, at 1-855-543-5465 or visit our website.

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.