Home alone for the holidays

December 21, 2020

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Written by Mark Debus, MSW, LCSW, manager, behavioral health services

Joy. Cheer. Laughter. A heart-warming holiday movie. A family around the dinner table. Bright decorations and trimmings of the season. These sentiments and scenes are what many of us typically associate with the holiday season.

But, alongside these, different images and emotions flood the mind too. Frustration, disappointment and fatigue as you envision scrambling for the last parking place at the mall, stacks of dirty dishes piled high in the kitchen, and petty bickering over the coordination of schedules. And then, adding insult to injury, comes the realization, that it’s holiday season amidst COVID-19! It simply makes you want to pull the covers over your head and curl back up in bed.

The holidays can be stressful under the best of circumstances. Factor in the events of 2020, and you have a holiday recipe for an emotional meltdown. The good news is there are tips and strategies you can apply to ease the stressors of the holiday season. You may also find that you become an invaluable resource of comfort and support for someone else.

First, recognize that this has not been a normal year, and it is OK to not feel an abundance of holiday cheer. Disappointment is natural as COVID-19 restrictions can prevent traditional gatherings of family and friends. You may feel more anxious due to the prevalence of COVID-19 and the fear of becoming infected or infecting others. Depression can set in due to the loneliness and disconnection created by local restrictions, social distancing, and mask wearing. It’s important to know that you are not alone in these feelings. It has been and continues to be a challenging year.

Knowing and recognizing the warning signs of severe emotional distress can benefit both you and your close family members and friends. Physical symptoms can include headaches, sleep disturbances, digestive difficulties and fatigue. Mental and behavioral impacts can show up in decreased concentration, irritability, frustration, alcohol/substance misuse, feeling critical of others, and experiencing a lack of motivation. If you recognize these signs in yourself or a loved one, it may be time to seek professional help from a mental or behavioral health specialist. You can explore resources available through your employer’s employee assistance program or talk with your primary care doctor to identify specialists in your area. Most importantly, keep the lines of communication open, offer reassurance that others are experiencing similar feelings, and know that help is available.

For the more routine holiday stressors, here are some active measures you can take to make the holidays more enjoyable:

Connect. Make a concerted effort to connect with people over the holidays. Closures and travel restrictions have severely limited social activity and engagements this year. Social distancing and mask wearing have created additional barriers to the human connection that we all seek. Recognize that people are longing for social interaction and reach out to your family and loved ones. Engage with old friends as well as newer acquaintances. Reminisce about past shared experiences and turn all eyes to the future with plans for outings to come. Connect in-person (socially distanced) or by phone, video, text, email, or letter. This will not only re-energize you but also provide much needed support to those around you.

Appreciate. Each year holidays provide an opportunity for reflection and a chance to appreciate life’s treasures. Be aware of what you have to be thankful for and express gratitude to those around you. Let others know how much you appreciate them being a part of your life. Say thank you to those who believe in you. Recall the special moments you have enjoyed this past year, be grateful for all that you have, including, your talents, your opportunities, your home, and your loved ones. Take in the beauty of nature, the wonders of the world; notice the sunrise that announces the arrival of each new day. Daily expressions of gratitude can lead to increased happiness, optimism, and contentment. Practicing gratitude during the holidays will allow you to carry this beneficial new habit into the new year.

Give. Holidays provide numerous and expanded opportunities to give. Few activities will bring greater joy than knowing that your efforts will benefit others. The pandemic has hit many charitable organizations particularly hard. Many worthy causes can benefit from your generosity, whether it be a financial gift or a contribution of your time and talents. Like Sedgwick’s season of giving campaign, many companies and organizations offer individuals a chance to be a part of a broader initiative. These types of campaigns offer convenience and assurance in knowing resources will be directed to those requiring assistance. One way to uplift spirits this year is to select a charitable organization as a family and choose to redirect gift or travel funds to this worthy cause. It may become a life-long tradition that uniquely bonds your family and is passed on through the generations. It is often true that by giving to others, we also give ourselves a gift.

Celebrate. Find joy by adapting and creating new ways to celebrate the holidays. This has been a challenging year on many levels. Many traditions can’t be followed in the same manner that we’re used to. Rather than dwell on lost opportunities, channel your energy into creating and sharing new and fun experiences with others. Zoom calls may bring the family together all at once and are a great way to engage when you can’t be together in person. Share your day’s activities with family members and ask about theirs. Adults might enjoy sharing holiday decorations, recording favorite traditions together, or creating an heirloom family cookbook. For the kids in your life, staging a virtual scavenger hunt that allows them to scour for household items can be a good a way to connect and have fun together. Younger children might enjoy showing off gifts they received. With friends, you can attend an online concert or a watch party together. Try building a snowman or sandcastle; physical results can be satisfying. Enjoying the bright lights and holiday decorations can lift spirits. While the circumstances surrounding our lives may have changed, the coming weeks offer a time for reimagined fun and celebration.

Simplify. Often, some of best advice for achieving mental health is to simplify, simplify, simplify. Many of us could have pared down our holiday plans years ago; now 2020 may have done that for us. It may be time to look around, count our blessings, and focus on simple pleasures. Read a book. Take a walk. Practice mindfulness. Be courteous. Spend time with those who make you happy. Positively impact the lives of others, including those you know and those you meet. For most of us, this year has taken away the crowds at the mall, long lines at the airport, tensions from complex family dynamics at annual gatherings. The year 2020 may have offered us all a gift for the taking – a possible reset and refocus on what matters most.

Within weeks, the holidays will come and go. The calendar will turn and a new year will begin. Many emotions will surface including joy, uncertainty, happiness, loneliness, and calm. When uneasiness sets in, know you are equipped to redirect and fill the void with positivity. Find your inner strength, be resilient, and enjoy the holidays.

Tags: Behavioral health, Caring counts, health, thought leadership