Christmas in the Time of Covid—How to Cope When the Holidays Get Hard
by Catherine Morris | December 21, 2020, updated 4 months ago
Stop me if this sounds familiar—you rang in 2020 with cheers, merriment and champagne fuelled excitement; almost 12 months later, you're sitting in your sweat pants staring at the calendar and wishing the days away until this annus horribilis is finally done.
Many households are running low on Christmas cheer this season. Along with coronavirus, we have had to contend with an epidemic of anxiety, loneliness, grief, and depression… and it's taking its toll. Around 84 percent of Canadians say their mental health has worsened since the onset of the pandemic, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
If you're struggling with the holidays, for whatever reason, it's time to make your mental wellbeing a priority. We talked to a few of our Which Doctor therapists and counsellors to get advice from the experts on how to cope with conflict, ease anxiety, and roll with the changes to create some new healthy holiday traditions.
What is a Normal Christmas Anyways?
Rule number one: get rid of the expectation of a normal Christmas because that's definitely not an option this year. With quarantine regulations keeping us at home, and many households taking a financial hit from the pandemic, there's a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.
Psychotherapist Lisa Koole has noticed a surge in negative emotions this winter, saying—
“This year I am seeing a lot of clients dealing with concern over what the holiday season will look like with restrictions in place. I am seeing anxiety and low mood over health and fear of contracting COVID-19, loss of finances, and new routines and lifestyle changes. Many people are missing the social connections and routines they once had.”
She says it's important to acknowledge this, and let go of the need to repeat last year's celebrations as if it were business as usual. For people who now face a lonely festive season, forced apart from family and friends, it can be particularly daunting but there are ways to beat the blues.
Koole says—“This year is going to look different with less social contact for everyone. It can feel like you are the only person alone, but you're not. There can be comfort in knowing other people share your experience. Limiting social media and not watching everyone’s 'highlight reel' could be helpful to reduce comparing situations. Plan fun or enjoyable activities for yourself [and] look for alternate ways to connect [like email or video chats]. Maybe you need to change things up and make connecting with people more of a priority. Are there groups or organizations you could join? Many are online now, but it’s a new way of creating community.”
You might've started feeling antsy in November, or when the first Christmas decorations went up in your town. Perhaps you've always had problems with this time of year because of painful memories, a December bereavement, or other trauma. If that's the case, you know this year is likely to be a tough one and counsellor Trish Scoular has an important piece of advice—be prepared and make a plan.
“Have a wellness plan to develop those coping skills,” she says. “It is so important to look for solutions and problem solve. We need to ask ourselves, 'how can I go into 2021 and be positive?', 'how can I change old patterns and old ways of thinking?'. It’s really about building a good wellness toolkit for yourself so you will be able to manage and cope.”
Psychotherapist Marie Henshaw also uses a 'Wellness Plan' with her clients, asking them to identify their triggers, consider what they need to do to feel secure, and remember times in the past when they've felt anxious but the situation has resolved. She says—
“Anxiety is a major issue. I encourage people to look back to things that they felt anxious about and how they turned out. I encourage people to look at what they need to do to keep themselves in a good place...spirit, soul and body.”
Scoular, who specializes in helping clients with anxiety and depression, recommends the 5,4,3,2,1 technique for when things get particularly tough. This involves noting five things you can see in your environment, four things you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell and one you can taste. It's a way of rooting people to the present and breaking any negative thought patterns.
“[The 5,4,3,2,1 method] helps to ground people and brings them back to the present if they are experiencing really overwhelming emotions,”
Says Scoular, who adds that if it still gets too much, you should find someone to talk to—whether that's a friend, a family member, or a mental health professional.
Ming Huey, of True Presence Counselling, says meditating can be a useful part of your wellness toolkit, even if it means just taking a moment to breathe and relax. “Meditation is a really good way to keep steady. It can be as simple as taking five minutes a day to just sit by yourself and breathe. It's better to do it as part of a routine, and don't wait until you're feeling anxious or out of control. When you start feeling that, chances are you’re already overwhelmed.”
Confronting Family Friction
Sometimes turning to family members for support isn't an option...because they're the problem. The holidays often bring up unresolved family arguments, conflicts, and old wounds. It's a particular worry this year as a lot of us have been cooped up with our 'household bubbles' for most of the last nine months, and emotions are running high.
Scoular emphasizes the importance of having a plan—“It's important to have a game plan and know your triggers. You can set rules and find some ways to make common ground. Try to be more mindful, and come together in a spirit of joy. You can always remove yourself from difficult conversations. If you have to go for a walk to settle down, people will understand.”
While it's key to take a time out when needed, it's also sometimes helpful to address issues head on. Huey specializes in family relationships and says this year might be the time to finally air any old grievances and resolve them once and for all—
“Now is a good time to solve conflicts. Before the pandemic, there were ways to avoid these things, and you could make excuses but the pandemic has put these things in front of people. A lot of people spent quarantine doing home improvement, baking, or spending more time with family—that shows you can make something positive out of this year.”
Take Time to Mourn
There's been a lot of loss this year, and that can make Christmas particularly painful. Whether your grief is new, or an old bereavement that's freshly triggered around the holidays, it can be devastating to be mourning as the rest of the world indulges in the festive season.
Koole says the first step is to deal with those difficult emotions head on as a necessary part of the process—
“Recognize and acknowledge your feelings. Grief shows us that we lost someone or something that was important to us. That feeling of grief is how you heal from your loss.”
She also recommends sharing cherished memories, rather than avoiding them, and giving your grief the space it needs, adding—“Can you find a way to honour your loved one? Sharing stories and favourite memories can make you feel close to them. Plan ahead for events that you feel may be difficult—what can you handle, and do you have a plan B if things don’t go as planned? There is no right or wrong way to handle your grief.”
“It’s ok to feel sad,” adds Koole. “This is when it’s super important to take care of yourself. It's very important to check in with your feelings and explore what you need in the moment.”
Be Kind (to Yourself)
“We're all very good at pushing ourselves to be responsible and get things done on our to do list but we are not very good at taking breaks or supporting ourselves.”
She says one of the big lessons of the season is that you don't have to be perfect, or get everything done. “Take that time for yourself and say no to certain things. Let things go. Letting things drop doesn't mean giving up, sliding into a hole and avoiding everyone. It's just about doing things differently, and that reveals what really matters most. Your health is really important so make it a priority this year.”
“Learning how to take care of yourself emotionally is so important. I encourage clients to start looking at their lifestyle and ask if there are stressors that they can change. Focusing on what they can control is a great place to start. Are they taking time to make sure they are living a healthy lifestyle? Sleep, eating healthy, drinking water, getting outside for fresh air and movement are all important factors that affect mental health.”
If you're currently dealing with depression, anxiety, bereavement, trauma, or other serious issues (whether holiday-related or not) seek help from a qualified mental health professional. We have a number of therapists and counsellors in our network who are available for online consultation whenever you're ready to reach out.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.