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Managing holiday stress in a pandemic

The holidays can mean very different things for each of us. For some, it’s a time to reconnect with family and friends. For others who have lost loved ones or who may have untraditional upbringings, it can conjure up feelings of grief. For those who don’t celebrate at all, it can feel awkward and unsure. And with Covid-19, many of us are in uncharted territory, unsure of what will happen.

Regardless of how you are spending the holidays, they can bring up a lot of emotion. Why is that the case? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

Holiday reality

In principle, the holidays sound great: quality time with those we love, giving and receiving gifts, singing carols, and eating holiday treats. Unfortunately, real life is no Hollywood movie.

This time of year can also bring up a lot of obligation: people you need to see, places you need to be, and gifts you need to buy. With Covid-19, this tension between tradition and reality is even greater. Many of us will not be able to reunite with family and will be spending the holidays alone for the first time. Others who decide to make the trip may face anxiety about traveling during a pandemic.

As a result, it may be especially hard to feel present or face reality. Here are a few reasons the holidays can be stressful:

Family stress

Loved ones can trigger deep issues any time of the year. This gets even worse during the holidays, when there are more family members and thus more triggers for anxiety. Traditions, expectations, interpersonal dynamics, and busy schedules all combine to exacerbate the drama. Holiday stress is particularly bad for women, who often take on a bigger chunk of planning and peacemaking within families.

Money issues

The holiday spirit often means giving. All this giving can create a lot of financial stress for families who are trying to stay on a budget. A 2016 study by T. Rowe Price found that 25% of parents have dipped into their emergency savings or 401(k) plan or taken out a payday loan to cover holiday expenses. Budgets are even tighter this year. This burden can cause stress that lingers long after the holiday lights have been taken down.

Lost loved ones

One thing we don’t talk about nearly enough is the impact grief has on holiday blues. Some of us may have lost loved ones this year, even parents or grandparents. When we're all gathered around the table, it becomes even more painfully clear who's no longer with us. That can lead to real feelings of loneliness that can dampen the happiest of holidays.​​

What to do

There’s a lot that’s outside of our control during the holidays -- flight delays, crowds, etc. This is even worse this year with the pandemic, when even the ability to see family is completely out of our hands.

After such a tough year, many of us are looking forward to family time more than ever. But that may not be a reality for many. And no amount of hoping can bring back lost loved ones or will the pandemic away. The good news is there’s also a lot we can influence.

Below are a few techniques for remaining sane during this busy time.

Zoom calls

If you are not fortunate enough to be with family this year, consider Zoom calls as an alternative. Zoom has lifted its 40-minute meeting limit for free accounts globally in recognition of several holidays (Hanukkah, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and Kwanzaa).

As we saw with Thanksgiving, while the holiday may be different, it can still be rewarding and comforting. The biggest upside to a video gathering is that you might even be able to see relatives who usually are not able to make it for the holidays, since it is so much easier to join a call than to travel.

Manage expectations

Tom Magliozzi, better known as co-host of NPR’s Car Talk show, summarizes it best when he refers to happiness as “reality minus expectation” I love this outlook because it distills such a complex concept down to pretty simple terms. The more we expect, the less our reality lives up to it, even if our reality is really, really, really great. Thus, we end up unhappy.

If we can change or manage those expectations, we can actually influence the equation and become more content, even if our objective reality stays the same.

This is often hardest during the holidays because there’s just so much expectation. Between It’s a Wonderful Life and Love Actually, anything short of a Hollywood-style miracle can feel disappointing.

On the upside, many of us have had a lot of practice adjusting expectations in 2020. Those “radical acceptance” muscles have grown stronger, just in time for the holidays!

Express gratitude

It can sometimes feel like the holidays are all about opulence and consumption -- the big red bow on the car in the driveway. (Who does that in real life anyway?!)

Let’s try to shift the conversation and remember the true meaning of the holidays: taking a moment from our busy lives to reflect on the past year with gratitude.

Even with all the turmoil in the world and the craziness happening in our own country, there’s a lot to be grateful for. And lucky for us, gratitude has been found to have a hugely positive correlation with overall happiness and well-being.

It’s often not hard for us to feel thankful -- it’s just hard for us to remember to feel thankful, especially when we’re busy.

Next time you’re running from place to place, take a moment to think about what you’re grateful for. Make it a new holiday tradition to go around the table (or video call!) during dinner and say one thing that makes you happy. And if you’re feeling motivated, find ways to give your money or time. In high school, I volunteered at a soup kitchen during the holidays and always found that experience fulfilling.

If you focus on what you have versus what you don’t, you may find yourself with fonder memories and fuller hearts. And those will last longer than any gifts you might receive.

Don't forget about yourself

Remember to take care of yourself this holiday. Practice the techniques above, so when your stress starts to spiral, you can instead cope and maybe even discover a new version of holiday cheer this year.

During these challenging times, if you find yourself more anxious or need to talk through the issues that may arise this holiday -- family, money, or otherwise -- remember that you are not alone. We encourage you to give yourself the gift of therapy.

Click "Get matched" above and let reflect find the right therapist for you.

Happy Holidays!

We know that this has been such a hard year, and we are so proud of you for making it through! All of us at reflect wish you and your family a happy and healthy holiday. Who knows what 2021 will bring -- but more than any other year, we have a lot of optimism and hope. Let’s savor the moments we have with the people who are here. After all, isn’t that the true present of Christmas?


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