HOW can WE CELEBRATE HOLIDAYS (POST-COVID) with LESS STRESS?
By Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.
The holiday season is upon us, all too soon it may seem. All of us tend to focus on the preparations needed: making large and festive meals, having guests for the day or for overnight stays, our own travel perhaps, decorating our homes (to varying degrees), special plans for children, and of course, all the shopping for presents and working out those logistics (as well as expenses). But, there is a mental and emotional aspect to this season as well. Being two-plus years into the COVID pandemic complicates all this to varying degrees, depending on steps each of us feels are needed to provide safety and security for all, especially the more vulnerable among us.
The holiday season is a time of pleasure, excitement, fun and shared time with loved ones for most of us, most of the time. Perhaps even more so this year, as some of us resume some of our more traditional celebrations, as the worst of the pandemic is easing.
Yet for some it can be a time of stress and tension, at least some of the time. Often it is the “busy-ness” of preparations noted above. A few times during all this “goodness”, we may pause, exhale a deep breath, and wonder if the trade-offs are really worth it.
For some of us, there is genuine disappointment, sadness, even hurt. Our pursuit of idyllic, perfect events and experiences may not be fulfilled to some extent, perhaps at all. Plans go awry, tensions percolate between family members and maybe friends, open conflict may break out. Liberal use of alcohol as part of the celebrating may intensify all of this, as behavior gets loosened.
As one of my graduate school friends, and long-term trusted colleague would put it: “I instantly regress to being 12 years old as soon as I enter my parents’ home. I find myself thinking, feeling, behaving in much the same ways I did then. The same conversations take place around the table. It’s like a time machine has moved us all back to some of those difficult times.” This is not a pleasant déjà vu.
The “holiday blues” may take hold at some point, perhaps during the season itself, or not until it’s all over, sometime in January, or maybe early February. Clinical psychologists often have a rush of requests for help at this time, as the blues progress into more full-fledged depression, anxiety, or various complaints.
How to help early on?
- Re-evaluate your expectations. Simplify, scale back and expect less of yourself and others. Perhaps the meal can be less grand and/or the length of time together shortened.
- Seek support of a caring spouse and/or close friends with whom you can share some of the disappointments, past and present. Share some of the memories of earlier hurts that have been stirred up. These folks you trust can help you re-calibrate.
- Focus more on people in your life who are genuinely nurturing, supportive, and fun to share time with, and increase your time with them rather than the traditional celebrations. Reduce some of the traditional celebrations that have proven to be problematic. Does Thanksgiving (or Christmas Day) really have to be all afternoon and well into the evening?
- Consider starting some new traditions and rituals with these truly special people.
- Be more careful with your own alcohol intake (or other substances), so your own thoughts and feelings are more clear and manageable as you go along. There’s less suffering the next day as well.
- If some of those long-standing traditions which are not always fulfilling are going to be maintained, then consider introducing some new people into the situation. Having a few friends and acquaintances present sometimes helps more “difficult” people be on “better behavior”, as there’s now an “audience” in front of whom they don’t want to embarrass themselves, or for whom they want to create a good impression.
- Maintain your self-care regimens: enough rest, healthy nutrition, regular exercise, nurturing activities. In fact, even do a bit more of these things to restore and refresh yourself.
A few more examples may help clarify all this. That good friend/trusted colleague and I, along with our spouses, created a new tradition: we had a Thanksgiving dinner of our own the weekend before Thanksgiving. We started this before we had any children and then continued it as a shared family experience once we each had kids of our own. And, or, we would celebrate Christmas on some other day than the holiday itself. The kids became close friends over many years as a result, and our family friendships deepened.
A couple in marital therapy realized that their annual trip back East for the Christmas holidays to visit with each of their parents was a mixed blessing of pleasure and disappointment. The parents lived in separate cities on the East Coast, so they devised a plan of spending one holiday weekend with one set of parents, the next weekend with the other set, and traveling for a few days on their own in between. This gave them a “breather” from challenging time with older parents and other family members, a chance to re-connect with each other for a few days, and a visit to some area they enjoyed for themselves. While they had to help their parents deal with their own disappointment that time with the family was reduced, it also became much more manageable, and actually more pleasant.
Lastly, consider starting some psychotherapy before the blues develop, or depression truly emerges. Or return to your previous therapist if he/she was of help. Even a few sessions can be of significant help. All of us members of the Independent Psychotherapy Network, at www.therapyinla.com, have many years of experience helping clients deal with holiday blues.
Dr. Alan M. Solomon is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Torrance, CA. A member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network, he can be reached at 310 539-2772 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Telehealth or in-person sessions are available.