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Holiday Blues, Loneliness, and Missing Your Traditions: How to Handle the Emotional Impact of the COVID Holiday Season

holiday emotional blues covid 19

COVID has not only brought a new “normal” to every-day living, it has also made us rethink holidays and celebrations. Indeed, Fourth of July barbecues and Labor Day parties took on a different “physically distanced” look this year. Now, with some of the biggest holidays for social gathering — from Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Year’s Day — approaching, many are wondering how to make it through when so much will be so different. A big challenge for many is how to handle the feelings of having a different kind of holiday season and missing out on seeing distant family members who they would normally visit, but won’t because it’s safest not to travel.

How to Deal with Sad and Lonely Feelings

For some, these holidays always bring on increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression. But, this year, “it may not be so much harder for people who are already sad, but with COVID no one is feeling the same,” said Thea Gallagher, PsyD, of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine.

It’s important to allow these feelings of sadness, Gallagher said. “Don’t try to shrug them off. Some people feel, ‘If I let myself be sad about it, that could be a black hole,’ or that others have it worse so we tell ourselves to not feel the way we feel. But resist doing that. Your struggles are your struggles. It’s important to honor your feelings and not compare.”

But try not to spiral off into catastrophic thoughts about the future, she continued. “Saying, ‘I’m so sad about not seeing my family these holidays’ are real feelings to share. But ‘The world’s going to end’ or ‘We’ll never get a vaccine’ are things you have to watch out for.”

Gallagher said that writing down feelings or sharing them with a friend gives these thoughts a place to go. But don’t rehash a problem repeatedly, without coming up with a solution. “That actually makes us feel worse.”

Capture the Joyful Spirit of the Season

While this year’s holidays are not going to be the same, that doesn’t mean they can’t still capture the spirit of the season. For example, on Halloween, Rinad Beidas, PhD, director of the Penn Implementation Science Center and an associate professor of Psychiatry and Medical Ethics, and her family — all wearing masks — brought a “COVID” piñata filled with candy to a park where they met their friends. “My kids told me it was the best Halloween they ever had. There was more candy and they recognized it as a special treat: seeing a friend outside safely.”

“Many people have ideas of what to do for the holidays but then it gets too busy to fit it all in,” Gallagher said. “Funnel that energy and anxiety into creating new traditions, like making a favorite family recipe and holding a virtual Thanksgiving. Take time to enjoy the little things and engage in the present moment.” And encourage children to be part of the planning, making up new traditions alongside some of the old ones. In the previous post on the Penn Medicine News Blog, we shared numerous ideas for how to celebrate the season safely — from driving tours of holiday light displays to Christmas morning video calls.

Or, rather than totally giving up holiday traditions, postpone them. One colleague of this writer said that friends of hers usually gather together with their extended family — about 50 people — to sing carols the Saturday after Thanksgiving at one person’s house. This year, they’re going to have a Christmas in July!

Take Time to Relax and Give Care

Even without the usual plans to travel or get together with family, Gallagher strongly encouraged people to take time off from work as they’d normally do during the holidays. “Don’t hoard your vacation days. We definitely need time off from work after the year we’ve had.”

And that includes putting on an “away” message in your email.  “Truly make yourself unavailable if you can,” Gallagher said. “We have fewer work/life boundaries than we did before.”

“Use the time this year to do something that fills your cup. Read, exercise, relax, sleep, binge-watch TV,” Beidas said. “Usually the holidays are chaotic with travel and preparation; this is an opportunity to engage in self-care. Don’t fill that extra time with work!”

Try to get outside in the morning for at least 20 minutes a day, even as the weather gets colder, Gallagher said. “Even if it’s not sunny, there are so many benefits to getting outside.”

Volunteering or giving back is a “guaranteed spirit lifter,” Beidas said. And, depending on community transmission rates, “gather outside — masked with appropriate physical distance — with a small number of family and friends around a bonfire and share what you are grateful for.”

While planning ahead is key to making the holidays special, always think in terms of how to do it safely. “You need to maximize mental health while minimizing COVID risk; it’s my mantra,” Beidas said. Especially as we see the transmission rate increasing throughout the country, “it’s more important to hunker down.”

There may be grief at not having the same traditions but there can be joy in new ones, Beidas said. “Special things can come out of this that we don’t anticipate or expect.”

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