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Disrupted Holidays? A Psychologist's Guide to Navigating the Changes with Ease

­If you're feeling conflicted about the upcoming holidays, you're not alone. With COVID fears, politics, and social distancing preferences taking center stage, having good self-care and inner balance are more important than ever.

This year's holiday season is a paradoxical source of joy and tension. Even those who've never suffered from anxiety and stress are wrestling with a sense of overwhelm after months of pandemic-related life changes. Those with pre-existing mental health issues are discovering that additional stressors—and disrupted holiday traditions—are exacerbating anxiety, stress, and depression. The groups that may be hit the hardest include those who are isolated due to relationship status, health issues, age, or strict social distancing preferences.

Why do the holidays hold so much power and meaning? In the midst of a busy, ever-changing world, the holidays symbolize safety and continuity. When life feels challenging and stressful—whether from illness or other issues—holiday traditions not only provide joy, they also offer a sense of normalcy. Seeing family members, enjoying holiday traditions, and partaking in the flow of familiar banter can feel deeply loving—and all this works magically together to provide inner strength, love, connection, and a sense of belonging. Yet with nearly every aspect of the holidays being affected—from social distancing to travel concerns—the much-treasured routines of holiday festivities will be anything but predictable and routine.

Your best defense this year is to embrace a proactive, balanced self-care stance. Here's the approach I recommend for this year's holiday season:

1. Be flexible and let go of perfection.

Give up the need to create "perfect" holidays. Be flexible on dates and timing. It's important to enjoy the people you are with no matter the date the celebration occurs. Put your energy into relishing the beautiful—if imperfect—moments with friends, family, and yourself.

2. Avoid the comparison trap.

Strive to not compare this year's celebrations to those in the past or future. Comparisons dampen creativity and reduce the chance that you'll embrace fabulous new ways to enjoy the holidays as never before.

Steer clear of comparing your plans to what your friends are doing. If social media posts leave you feeling deflated—which happens all too often—give yourself a break from comparison-inducing scrolling. Instead, turn your energy toward joys and blessings in your own life.

3. Connect with people who are aligned with your COVID approach.

Many people are in what I call a "retraction" mode. Out of fear of getting COVID, spreading COVID, or upsetting those who have differing social distancing needs, many people are electing to avoid social gatherings in favor of small home-spun or virtual celebrations. On the other end, some people are electing to ignore social distancing protocols in order to spend festive time with friends and loved ones. Strive to avoid judging what others are doing and, instead, connect with those who are aligned with your social distancing needs.

4. Know and express your social distancing needs in advance.

It's truly important to know your needs in regard to social distancing. Once you know what you need to feel safe, you'll be able to express this information openly and clearly before attending any gatherings. If your needs are honored—and you are able to honor the needs of your hosts—the flow can be very easy and free of stress. If needs are disparate, it may take some collaborative problem-solving to create group events that feel safe to everyone. And if there are events that feel overwhelming or unsafe, a good self-care strategy is to step back and decline the invitation this year.

Without judgment, express your comfort level and social distancing needs. If others' needs are different from yours and mutual compromise isn't possible, simply decline the invitation in a positive way. For example, you might say, "I can't attend in person, but I'll be with you in spirit."

Remember that this is one year out of many celebrations you'll be able to enjoy; that truth will help you keep things in perspective.

5. Get creative with remote celebrations.

Stay connected from afar by enjoying virtual cookie-baking parties, singing carols Karaoke-style on Zoom, or holding holiday dinners by video. Focus on what you can create in safe ways rather than what you may have done in the past. As well, you can connect with others by doing virtual group activities, such as playing games or crafting together.

Symbolic gestures matter, too! Light candles for each other, send decorations or ornaments via mail, and mail batches of freshly made holiday goods.

6. Remember: It can be healthy to say no.

If gatherings are stress-inducing, attend only those that are "musts" for you. Learn to give a polite "no" to invitations that tax you, your schedule, or your health and safety boundaries. If you are pressed to attend, simply state, "I have other plans." These plans may involve simple at-home self-care, and no explanation is needed!

When you do attend gatherings, feel free to limit your stay to a time frame that feels right and doable for you. Be aware of your personal needs, whether that's having smaller gatherings, limiting the duration of your stays, or having more one-on-one conversations rather than group chats.

If you're pressured to do more than is right for you, realize that the pressuring person has poor boundaries. Gracefully stick to your truth and needs.

7. Know your needs and triggers to halt stressful dynamics.

Pause to objectively familiarize yourself with dysfunctional dynamics, and prepare yourself mentally and emotionally in advance. Especially when alcohol and stress are added to the mix, many people find that discussions with certain family members—whether about politics, children, or career—lead to arguments and hurt feelings. Instead of hoping that such people will magically change their customary behavior, you can emotionally and mentally prepare in advance by objectively assessing who the likely offenders will be. You can then practice conversation-stoppers such as, "I don't talk politics" or "When I'm ready to start a family, I'll be sure to let you know!" to keep conversations manageable and on track. Of course, if things heat up despite your best efforts, feel free to take a timeout to walk, chat with a friend, or wash the dishes.

Once you are aware of your triggers—whether it's food, certain people, or doing too much—you can take specific steps to reduce the stress-inducing issues. This can include taking a timeout, going for a walk, or finding a quiet place to breathe. As an introvert, I find that I frequently need mental health timeouts—even during my own parties. One year, my partner found me happily sweeping the floor in the kitchen to de-stress while guests boisterously rang in the New Year. If this resonates with you, you might find that doing simple tasks during holiday festivities—whether taking along knitting, a book to read, or helping with the cleanup—is just what you need to reduce stress.

8. Create and maintain solid boundaries.

Difficult people can take joy out of holiday gatherings, so it's important to have strong boundaries and keep an emotional distance. Don't engage with negative acquaintances or family members. Simply state your needs and leave it at that. If you need a break, feel free to take a timeout.

You don't need to overtly ignore certain people or get into disagreements. The trick is to keep difficult individuals at arm's length by kindly acknowledging their presence but refusing to engage in negative ways. For example, if you know that Aunt Pitty is sure to be critical and compare you to her high-achieving children, simply smile and offer her a holiday greeting. If she tries to start up conversations that are negative, quickly excuse yourself from the table or gathering area. In time, she'll get the message that you're not interested in her negative interactions.

9. Engage in excellent self-care.

Find a quiet spot at least three times per day where you can tune into yourself and your needs for a minimum of five minutes. Whether you take a bath, meditate in a serene space, journal, or take a walk outside, use these short interludes to breathe and check-in with yourself. You can also intentionally schedule time with friends or loved ones who are supportive, calming, and uplifting.

As 2020 draws to a close, take a moment to appreciate yourself and all that you are. This year has been challenging, and the fact that you are here—curious, willing, and appreciative—is a huge success in itself. May your holidays and the coming year be filled with what matters: huge doses of love and light.

Credit: Carla Marie Manly, PH.D. clinical psychologist


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