covid life

The holidays are always somewhat of a mixed bag. For many people, this is a challenging time without a pandemic. For others, the pandemic, along with the associated shutdowns and quarantines, is dampening their much-anticipated frivolity.

So, it’s not much a stretch to say that the 2020 holiday season has most of us struggling more than usual with intense emotions.

Normal decisions such as “Do I go home for the holidays?” or “Do I invite this person to join me?” or even “How much money can I spend this year?” have taken on entirely new levels of stress, sadness, guilt and grief. Given this uncertainty, some of us may even be wondering if we should be celebrating at all.

These emotions manifest in unexpected ways. Take the time to check in with yourself and acknowledge how you feel, physically and emotionally.

Am I taking care of myself or making too big a deal of the situation?

Guilt can be a factor regardless of the choices we make. The decision to gather with family and loved ones might involve crowded plane travel in addition to socializing in a large group, potentially putting ourselves and others at risk. On the other hand, skipping the in-person festivities can mean going against the wishes of family members to uphold long-standing traditions. If guilt is causing you to reconsider your choices, ask yourself if you are doing what’s best for you.

How am I addressing this year’s unexpected losses?

Even if no distance travel is necessary and no big gatherings are happening, you may still choose to avoid socializing with family and friends due to stricter safety protocols. This can raise difficult emotions and feel like a loss.

The holidays, with all their busy-ness, are a bit of lightness and distraction at the darkest time of the year. The inability of people to gather, however, can exacerbate our sadness. Not only are we dealing with a crisis, but we can’t take comfort with the people we often rely on for that.

This may be the first time you’re not going home, or the first time your children won’t be coming home for the holidays. It may be the first time without seeing grandparents or grandchildren because of the risks associated with vulnerabilities due to age or underlying health conditions. This may be the first holiday season without someone who passed away.

The holidays often mean spending money, which can be fun or stressful, depending on your situation. Many people have lost jobs this year making finances a bigger concern, further hampering enjoyment of the holidays.

Tips for managing the guilt, grief and other challenging emotions

“Mental wellbeing comes from within ourselves, while trauma can come from seeking validation from others,” explains Maria Droste therapist Lindsay Rojas, LCSW, AASW. “It’s important to differentiate, ‘What do I need?’ versus ‘What others are telling me I need?’”

Navigating this normally festive season with restrictions that can change daily is tricky, but not impossible. Lindsay offers these tips for managing the uncertainty.

  • Don’t emotionally isolate.
  • Resist the temptation to ignore the holiday altogether by treating it like any other day.
  • Have a plan:
    • Hold the space that this annual event will look different this year. Identify your feelings and validate them. Feelings that appear to contradict each other can coexist. Are you sad about not having a traditional holiday? Relieved that you may not be facing some of the typical stressors and pressures of the holiday season? Perhaps it is a little of both and that is okay.
    • Acknowledge and honor the grief you may be feeling. For example, If this is the first time you are not travelling home to be with family, have some compassion for yourself if you find you’re feeling lonely, unsettled, or even comforted.
    • Engage in some Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). If your feelings are all over the place, try some DBT skills for emotional regulation. Through the DBT skill of Radical Acceptance, we identify our feelings and simply acknowledge them, without trying to change or place judgment on them. For example, if you are feeling overwhelmed and emotionally flooded, try staying present and telling yourself “Right now, I am feeling overwhelmed due to X,Y,Z and it is what it is” versus “I am feeling overwhelmed and I should not be.”
    • Find a way to have fun. Have a special activity, game or puzzle to look forward to. Binge a new show or have a favorite movie marathon.
    • Honor yourself. What will get you through the day without inducing stress? (Does this include in-person social interaction or not?)
    • Check on others.
    • Celebrate with friends or family in your bubble while social distancing.
    • Connect via Zoom or FaceTime (Zoom is lifting the 40-minute time limit, allowing you to call friends and family for up to 30 hours straight. The Houseparty App allows you to facetime while playing games including charades, pictionary, trivia and its own version of cards against humanity/apples to apples)
    • Take the time to process what you are going through. Journal, share your feelings out loud/externally process with others, spend some quiet time alone thinking, do a body scan/ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling in my body? Am I tense/tired/stressed/heavy/relaxed?”
    • Practice gratitude. Take time to acknowledge the things that are in your control. Name three things that you are grateful, for example, I am healthy, I am safe, I get to make my own decisions of how to spend today.
    • Spend time with your pet. A cuddle session with a furry friend is more than just a ‘feel good’ feeling. Research shows that the human-animal bond is beneficial and can buffer against stress, anxiety and depression. Petting an animal improves immune system functioning, increases oxytocin and dopamine levels, and reduces heart rate and cortisol levels. Additionally, caring for pets allows us to spend quality time with them by going for walks or playing fetch.

Need help?

If you are struggling with issues related to COVID-19, the holidays or anything else and would like to speak to a therapist about, contact Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.

***Thank you to Maria Droste therapist, Lindsay Rojas, LCSW, AASW, for contributions to this blog.***