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Coping With Holiday Blues During COVID-19

Tips for recognizing and managing your stressors.

The holiday season is a wonderful opportunity to spend time with family and friends, catch up, participate in family and religious traditions, and enjoy the company of loved ones. For some, the holidays are associated with triggers, stressors, and emotional landmines. For many of us, it is both.

This past year was grueling. We are in the middle of a pandemic that is affecting every state in the country—and is worsening. Our new normal and public health guidelines center around masks, avoiding large gatherings, and for some, a fear of this invisible intruder in our lives. Many people lost jobs, postponed healthcare, and found their lives upended. America’s recent presidential election laid bare the reality that we live in a very divided country. Normal conversations about politics can quickly escalate to emotional arguments. We are stuck at home. We are exhausted. And it is real.

For people with a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression, that exhaustion is a companion to holiday season triggers and stressors. However, we can navigate the holiday season by using simple but powerful tools. Doing so allows us to enjoy the benefits that the holiday season can bring and take steps to prevent or manage stress. We can create our new holiday normal.

Understand Stressors. There are many different types of stressors. Frustrations can be thought of as barriers to reaching goals. They can be outside of our control, such as losing a job. Frustrations can also be internal, such as feeling embarrassed about a poor life decision. Conflicts are stressors in which a person has to decide between two or more goals—perhaps feeling anxiety about what to do. Similarly, pressures are situations in which a person feels that he has to do something in a specific way, whether he or she wants to or not. We can experience all of these types of stressors—and more—during and because of the holidays.

Understand Your Stressors. What causes stress and how we experience stress differs among people. Thus, it is important to understand the people, places, and things that cause stress for you. Ask yourself: Which people, places, or situations have caused stress in the past? If you think back, you can likely find repeating patterns in which certain situations were associated with stress, anxiety, or other negative feelings. Write those down. Make a list of your top stressors.

Understand Your Stress Responses. Everyone responds to stress differently. How we deal with stress varies among people and can change over time. Some people eat more, smoke more, or drink more. Some people become irritable, frustrated, or scared. Some become anxious or depressed. Some people withdraw from other people. Some people make risky or poor decisions. Understanding how you normally respond to stress can help you develop healthy ways of dealing with stress. Make a list of your top stress responses.

Build Your Stress Toolbox. Whether by accident or by design, you have likely taken steps in the past that have prevented or helped to reduce your response to stressful situations. Think about what has helped you to deal with stressful situations in the past. Perhaps you have taken a long walk or a bike ride after situations that made you uncomfortable. Perhaps you read a book to silence your thoughts. Some people practice guided imagery, imagining themselves in their “happy place.” Some practice progressive muscle relaxation, in which they tighten and relax their muscle groups, beginning with their forehead and moving down to their toes. Explore relaxation techniques for stress reduction. Find a few options that work for you and add them to your stress toolbox. Make a list of tools that have helped you to deal with stressful circumstances.

Make a Plan. Once you get to know your stressors, your stress responses, and have a few tools in your stress toolbox, make a plan. Decide ahead of time what you will do to reduce the opportunities for stress and how you will respond to stressful situations if they occur. If you are going to a family gathering, identify someone who can be your support buddy. Let them know about your plan and that you might need them to help you through rough spots. It may be as simple as asking your support buddy to take a quick walk or asking him or her to change the group conversation if you signal them that you are starting to feel anxiety.

Prepare. Before going to a family event that may be filled with stressors, do those things that can help you to relax. Jog, meditate, do yoga, take a hot bath, or whatever helps you to relax before going. Review your lists of stressors, stress responses, and your stress toolkit. Eat healthy, avoiding high-sugar foods and refined carbs. These can give you a temporary sense of stress relief but can cause stress and anxiety after your blood sugar crashes. If you take medication for your anxiety, don’t forget to take it. And avoid trying to steady your nerves by drinking alcohol.

Create Personal Goals. It may sound a bit odd, but before you go to a family holiday event, think about what you hope to achieve. Identify a few specific goals about what you hope to accomplish. Determine how much time you plan to spend. Understand your personal limits. Identify those people with whom you really want to spend time and make a plan to do so. Identify people, places, and things that cause stress, and make a plan to avoid or limit time with these stressors.

Use Your Toolbox. If you have a mental health disorder, such as anxiety, and find yourself in a stressful situation, open your stress toolbox. Use the tools that have helped you get through such situations in the past. The tools in your toolbox can help you to deal with stressful situations and de-stress after such situations. Avoid unhealthy stress responses, such as isolating. Reach out to your support buddy and share your feelings. Remind yourself that this stressful situation is temporary. You will get through it.

Family Members Who Are Stressors. As the saying goes, you can’t choose your family. You may have a relative who is a stressor for you. Identify that person so you can plan ahead and put your stress toolbox to use. Identify the factors that have led to stress in the past, such as politics. Avoid speaking about those issues. Of course, your family member may decide otherwise. If so, tell him or her that you came to the family holiday event to enjoy yourself and have a pleasant time. Tell him or her that speaking about this topic makes you uncomfortable. Ask him or her that you would appreciate talking about something else. It may be a little awkward, but it may work. You can signal your support buddy to change the topic of conversation. If these don’t work, politely excuse yourself and join a different person, group, or activity.

Mental Health Self-Disclosure. Speaking openly about your mental health problem is a deeply personal decision, especially during family events. So, make that decision and do it ahead of time. Decide whether or not you wish to speak about it. Decide who you feel comfortable speaking about it. Decide who you wish not to speak about it. You may want to share that your recovery is going well and leave it at that. You may wish to share that you are struggling, but you sought help, have a plan, and seek their support. But make your decisions and responses in advance. Your mental health should not be the main topic of conversation at a family holiday event. Have your responses ready for that family member who wants to do that. Ask your support buddy for support during these types of situations.

Staying in Touch During COVID. COVID changed the rules. Today, flying on planes, gathering in groups, and going to restaurants carries risks. But COVID sped up our use of communication technology platforms. Workplaces, families, and people are using FaceTime, Zoom, and similar technologies to connect with one another more than ever. Use these technologies to stay in touch. Create your Zoom or other accounts. Create virtual meetings with family and friends to stay connected. Create or participate in fun virtual hangouts. Watch a movie with a friend while online. Play a board game with friends online. Throw a PowerPoint Party where everyone develops a holiday-themed slide. Be creative!

Family Traditions During COVID. Every family has their own holiday traditions. Many family traditions can be recreated virtually. Families can start new traditions, making use of virtual meeting technologies. Organize a virtual holiday event. Start by making a holiday music playlist based on suggestions from all participants. One home can be the virtual host, playing holiday music in the background. Do what your family normally does, such as opening gifts one at a time while everyone watches and comments. Make a PowerPoint presentation with each person or group creating their end-of-year highlights. Have different members read your religion’s spiritual text. Create a video about family events and present it during the event. Play games like online holiday bingo, a virtual holiday scavenger hunt, virtual holiday trivia, and more. Start new virtual family traditions.


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