Your Brain on the Risks of Holiday Travel

A contrarian view of holidays with your family.

Posted Nov 29, 2020

The winter holidays trigger an annual case of Black Anniversary in me; not exactly PTSD, but a close enough relation that it inevitably brings back memories of tragedies that occurred in my family in November and December when I was growing up. Thanksgiving and Christmas have been mostly trauma-free since then, more fun than fraught, sometimes in another country with my grown kids and later their families, often at friends’ homes, lately at mine.

I was spoiled for a time when my daughter was married to a chef, relieving me of responsibility for preparing a feast. Since then, the family has expanded and contracted, as families do over time: Partners and friends come and go, kids grow and leave, things change.

One of the homemaking skills I seemed to have lost along the way is the ability to put all the dishes on the table at the same time, hot and fully cooked; it is the subject of so much teasing by the younger generations that last year, I ordered the entire meal in from Whole Foods and it arrived with foolproof timing instructions. This year’s holiday plans, which involved traveling cross-country, have, of course, been canceled by the pandemic.

The fall surge we knew was coming is here, and so are the recalculations of risk that everyone is making: Do I dare to relax my COVID hygiene? Is it still safe to expand my pod? Can I plan a ski trip or a winter break in the sun? How we consider what risks to take is processed in our brains as well as our psychology and lived experience.

We like to think we assess risks rationally, but our fears and desires play a bigger role in decision-making.  The amygdala, which is the brain’s emotional control center, triggers feelings of fear and signals the body to respond with one of its possible reactions; flight, fight, or freeze. This activates a region in the prefrontal cortex where the brain’s override system determines whether it’s over-reacting in order to evaluate decisions more rationally. The connection between these two adjoining areas of the brain is important in weighing the costs and benefits of different courses of action and deciding which is better.

The brain has another region that processes feelings of disappointment, loss, and disgust, which heighten the potential negative outcomes of taking a risk. The insula is key to what scientists call the behavioral immune system, the unconscious actions we take to avoid getting sick. The decisions we make about how we behave in the pandemic are a mixture of both emotional and rational evaluation. But life experience, genetic factors, and environmental influences also play a role, as do considerations of our age, situation, and priorities.

For many people who despite quarantine fatigue continue to observe the basics of COVID safety—wear a mask, wash your hands, stay six feet away—but who also relaxed their vigilance during the summer, socialized outside, or even expanded their pod to include select others, anxiety about the election replaced or at least supplanted anxiety about the virus. What was in the background in minds then is now in the foreground, especially because the surge is deadlier and more widespread.

But the public space, on- and offline, seems more preoccupied about getting to the end of this annus horribilis without a family celebration than it is with the surge itself, reflecting myth-making images for which Americans are suckers (Norman Rockwell’s holiday table) and personal nostalgia that has burnished memories of holidays past to a golden glow.

How sad it will be to celebrate the holidays without each other—but how necessary to the national emergency! As T.S. Eliot wrote, “The last temptation is the greatest treason/ to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Yes, the media proclaims, you can and should plan a virtual holiday, and in the pages of every newspaper there are dozens of helpful tips. But while the technology’s willing, the feelings aren’t. A Zoom holiday dinner isn’t the same as really being together.

And that might be the silver lining in the COVID cloud—activating the emotional immune system, which happens when one considers the relative (no pun intended) benefits of not spending the holidays with one’s family: not mine, but maybe yours.

Think of what you’ll miss. Everyone who asks you why you’re not married yet. Your in-laws who criticize everything you do. Your partner, who lets them and doesn’t stand up for you. Your mother, who monitors every bite you take and comments on it. Your brother, who still thinks he’s the expert on everything except what to do about your aging parents. Your father, who doesn’t know why you didn’t take his career advice and is still foisting it on you. Your cousin, who bickers with everyone. Your grown kid, who keeps checking your refrigerator and throwing out everything that’s close to or past its sell-by date (Okay, that’s mine). And of course, there’s crazy Uncle Don, not the one in the White House, but the true believer who sneaked into your family whose political, cultural, racial, even conspiratorial views are anathema to you.

The emotional immune system can’t entirely protect you from the holiday blues or be as useful to you as tips on how to have a virtual celebration en famille, but while you’re curled up at home in your sweats eating takeout from whoever’s delivering while bingeing on The Queen’s Gambit, it’s something to be grateful for.