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When Holiday and Pandemic Stress Collide

10 tips to manage your wellness during this unique season

The holidays are often a joyous time of the year; however, they can also prompt stress as well. This year many are grappling with the unique pressures that arise when celebrating the holidays in a global pandemic. In this unique time, you may be noticing that your stress levels are amplified. If we are not careful, stress can have a deleterious effect on our wellness.

Here are 10 tips to help you manage your wellbeing this season:

1. Acknowledge that this year is unique

Like many other aspects of 2020, a safe holiday season likely comes with adaptations. Start by accepting the reality that this year is likely going to look different from years past. In a recent study, Kroska and colleagues highlight that psychological flexibility can be helpful in coping through the COVID-19 pandemic. Allow yourself to acknowledge that while this season may not look the way you hoped it would, there is still room for joy if you choose to let it in. This perspective can allow you to face the facts without being weighed down by comparisons with what cannot be.

Ben White/Unsplash
Source: Ben White/Unsplash

2. Reflect on your reason for the season

The commercialization of the holidays paired with the highlight reels of social media provide the perfect formula for competition. This year, the list of what you may be unable to do could be longer than in previous seasons. Perhaps with an immunocompromised family member the holiday dinner you eagerly awaited may not be an option, but it doesn’t mean that you still can’t have a purposeful celebration within your current context. Take time to align with your values, and recognize what is important to you. If you reflect on this at the beginning of the season, you can check from time to time to make sure you are aligning with your true self.

For example, if a core value of yours is connection, it may feel odd to have to cancel your annual gathering. However, when connected to your reason for the season you may be able to find a way to feel connected during this time, such as by hosting a smaller gathering, exploring outdoor options, or allowing technology at the dinner table for the first time. In the time of COVID-19, many may have to make disheartening changes to typical traditions. While this can be disappointing, remaining aligned with your reason for the season may help inspire you to creatively adapt your customs to support a happy, healthy holiday season.

Alisa Anton/Unsplash
Source: Alisa Anton/Unsplash

3. Invest in wellness

During the holiday season it’s common to experience an increase in events on your calendar. Sure, in the pandemic you may have less on your social schedule, but planning, shopping, and preparations still take up a decent amount of time and can cause a fair amount of stress as well. In addition, it’s common to focus on others, especially if you are a caregiver, and it becomes easy to neglect yourself in the process. However, if you want to be able to tend to others, it’s essential that you take care of yourself too. Investing in your well-being will allow you to be more present, engaged, energized, helpful, and healthy.

Knowing that stress levels have already been on the rise throughout the year, carving out time for self-care is not only responsible, but essential. Consider what has worked for you in managing your wellness in the past, especially during the holidays. From there, reflect on your current needs and brainstorm how you can make steps, no matter how small, toward achieving fulfillment in that area.

Reflect on your preferences and try to schedule yourself in, even if the time available seems short. An hour to decompress, a half an hour to exercise, 15 minutes to journal, 5 minutes to tune into your breath, and even one minute of gratitude practice can do wonders. Read this piece if you wish to learn more about self-care during the pandemic.

4. Know your limits

Stress is a normal part of life. It is a natural response to an external pressure that disrupts your equilibrium. While stress occurs for all of us, it may look different from person to person. A key step in managing your stress is to know your symptoms in order to intervene sooner rather than later. Take time to consider what your signs of stress are. Then, reflect on what pushes you in that direction as well as what serves as a buffer. For example, say you tend to get nervous in big social gatherings, and perhaps you realize that with an underlying lung condition, pandemic anxiety exacerbates your stress levels whereas using technology helps you to feel more comfortable.

Knowing your stressors empowers you to be cognizant of your limits. Being aware of your personal boundaries allows you to better manage them. Handling small spurts of stress tends to be more manageable than ignoring or minimizing them and finding yourself in a tizzy when deciding what dessert platter to use. Being aware of your limits also helps you to appropriately infuse timely self-care, such as deep breathing, taking a break, asking for help, or allowing yourself to rest.

5. Communicate your boundaries

Due to the unique context of celebrating in a pandemic, it’s likely that many of us are having to reconsider what our holiday season boundaries are. We can’t communicate our boundaries if we don’t know what they are, and we can’t hold others responsible for respecting our boundaries when they are unaware of them.

Some of these boundaries may feel a bit odd to have, particularly if they are new or if you are uncertain about how they will be received. Don't let this awkwardness hinder you from having proactive conversations. Last year I wouldn’t have imagined myself establishing guidelines around hugging, declining big festivities with friends and family, or asking what loved ones are up to in the weeks leading up to a gathering, but these are common considerations in the pandemic. While discussions such as these may be difficult, it tends to be easier to have them proactively than it is to enforce damage control when boundaries are crossed.

Raj Rana/Unsplash
Source: Raj Rana/Unsplash

6. Follow your joy

Knowing your reason for the season opens the path to following your joy. It can be easy to get distracted by all you cannot have this year, but this unique time can provide an opportunity for you to shake things up. Maybe this year you choose to be a bit more creative, step out of your normal routine, or even explore new opportunities that you may not have considered in the past.

Not all adaptations you choose to make need to come paired with a sense of disappointment. Perhaps doing something new even excites you. If you’re in a climate that permits it, maybe your family meal can be hosted outdoors this year. Maybe this year, with all of its turmoil, has actually made you realize how fortunate you are and this year your reason for the reason shifts to gathering donations with your loved ones instead of your traditional gift swap.

7. Stay technically connected

In this distanced time, it can be difficult to evoke the festive cheer of the season. However, this pandemic has prompted us to reconsider how we use technology. Perhaps you had a strict limit on your children’s screen time or enforced a “no tech at the table” rule that you are re-evaluating. You may think it’s just not the same, and as someone who loves quality time, I hear where you’re coming from. However, these are changes that you make for the context, not as a mere matter of preference.

With that being said, our increased technology use does come with its own concerns. Many have found themselves tethered to their devices more than ever before. In addition, in a recent study published in Science Advances, Holman and colleagues highlight that COVID-related media exposure early in the pandemic was associated with "acute stress and depressive symptoms." The Center for Human Technology shares strategies that you may find helpful in balancing your digital well-being while using technology as a tool of connection.

Dollar Gill/Unsplash
Source: Dollar Gill/Unsplash

8. Seek support

Social support is widely known to be a great resource in stress management. Many individuals are not just feeling distanced, but also lonely. While the common problem of loneliness pre-dates COVID-19, the pandemic has amplified this mental health concern and makes support more important than ever before.

Keep in mind, any of the tips highlighted in this article can be explored with the company of someone else. Moreover, some of these strategies could even be more effective when explored with another person, or even several others. Examples include a dinner chat with your partner, a family meeting to plan for the holidays, attending a virtual support group, or a telehealth session with a mental health professional.

Danil Aksenov/Unsplash
Source: Danil Aksenov/Unsplash

9. The present is a present

During the holidays we tend to reflect on the past, including the year behind us, the traditions that have evolved, the relationships that ended, and the lives that we have lost. It can also be a time that prompts stress about the future. We cannot time travel to the past or future. Let’s face it, you likely have enough on your plate today. While it may be easier said than done, embrace the present of the present. This can take time, patience, and practice. Be intentional about creating spaces where you can be in-the-moment, free from all that has happened and the unknown of what is to come.

Sweta Meininger/Unsplash
Source: Sweta Meininger/Unsplash

10. Don’t forget the gift of gratitude

Gratitude can help us broaden our perspective. It’s an excellent coping skill because it can be practiced at any time and it doesn’t cost a dime. Thankfulness is a gift that you can give yourself, but you may also choose to share your gratitude with others as well. Especially in this pandemic, you may find it easy to enumerate your woes. If you catch yourself falling into negativity, try to reflect on all that you are grateful for, not to minimize your struggles, but to help you see what your struggles may be overshadowing. Choosing to share gratitude with others can improve bonding and can spark warmth in your holiday gatherings.

If you find yourself struggling with the stress of this time and these tips are difficult for you, it may be a sign that you could utilize help from a local mental health professional. You do not have to handle this alone, and you can find a trained clinician by reaching out to your insurance provider, local mental health organization, or searching for a provider in the Psychology Today directory.

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States via phone at 1-800-273-8255 or chat.

More from Shainna Ali Ph.D., LMHC, NCC
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