How to Keep Pandemic Stress from Ruining Your Holidays

In the Before Times, a typical holiday season scenario might include gathering with friends and family around the Christmas tree or Chanukah menorah, elbowing your way through crowds of shoppers in a bustling mall, plopping the little ones down on Santa’s lap for a classic photo—or maybe traveling far, far away from the holiday hubbub to soak up some tropical sun.

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This year, however, with the pandemic still raging across the globe and the economy on the fritz, Americans are anticipating a holiday season like no other. According to one survey, 68 percent of Americans expect to spend the Christmas/Chanukah season differently than they usually do this year. Another survey found that 27 percent of Americans plan to spend less on gifts this year compared to last year, with 54 percent of those saying they have less money to spend because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Having to rethink the “most wonderful time of the year” during a year that's been less than wonderful for most of us can cause a lot of added stress. But taking it one step at a time and looking for opportunities to create new meaning can help, says Angela Ficken, L.I.C.S.W., a Boston-based psychotherapist. “There is a lot of challenging stuff that can come up at the holidays,” she says. “Looking at the big picture can be overwhelming, so I tell people to think about slivers, not chunks.” She recommends focusing on one small piece of the holiday puzzle at a time, coming up with a few options, and then discussing those plans with your loved ones so everyone can get on board.

Here are four holiday stress points that can come up in the next few weeks, and ways to cope:

It Won't Seem Like the Holidays If I Can't Gather with My Family

Until those promising vaccines are approved and distributed, the CDC is still warning against gathering in groups larger than 10 people. So, that big Kwanzaa festival or Christmas Eve party will probably have to wait until next year. Still, says Ficken, there are ways to connect creatively. She suggests organizing fun activities over Zoom, like singing holiday songs together, opening presents, or playing games. “The lovely part of this is that there are so many ways you can be creative, and it doesn’t have to be exhausting!” she says. Best of all, no cleaning and extensive cooking required.

I Can’t Afford to Give as Many Presents This Year

Whether your income has taken a hit or the pandemic has made you prioritize saving over spending, you may want to rethink how you exchange gifts this year. That might mean having your friends pull names from a virtual hat instead of exchanging gifts with everyone as usual, and putting a cap on how much to spend on a gift.

“This is also a great opportunity to be creative and think about gifts with meaning,” says Elizabeth Jennings, O.T.D., an occupational therapist and life coach in Austin, TX. She suggests encouraging the whole family to take the spotlight off commerce and shine it on creativity instead. In lieu of your traditional family gift exchange free-for-all, ask the kids, grandparents, and cousins to exchange presents that they can make with things they already have in the house, like hand-made cards and crafts. Ficken suggests that adults swap their favorite books or recipes. In the end, it's the experiences that families will remember most, says Jennings. “Create special moments to treasure together—like watching holiday movies in your pajamas with popcorn, or having a holiday tea party, where the kids can dress up and embrace all their senses as you bake and enjoy treats together.”

I Just Can't Get into the Holiday Spirit

Your immediate family may have spent a lot of time together over the last year, with few opportunities to get some space and let off steam. That’s why it’s important to schedule in some time for yourself even in the middle of the season, says Jennings. “Every day, try to do one thing that is going to help bring you some happiness and help you feel a sense of gratitude,” she suggests. That could be anything from writing in a journal to taking a brief walk to listening to your favorite music. And whether you’re surrounded by others or living on your own, a great way to boost your spirits and feel connected to the community during the holiday season is to give to others. “We start to feel better when we're able to serve others,” Jennings says. She suggests writing and sending holiday cards to people who may feel particularly isolated this time of year—particularly those in hospitals or nursing homes. Or bake a big batch of your favorite holiday cookies and leave a bag or tin of the sweet treats on your neighbor's doorstep—don't forget to alert them to the presence of your presents.

We Have to Rethink Our Usual Traditions

From attending church services to whisking the family off to Disney to attending a raucous New Year’s Eve party, many of the holiday-season activities you look forward to will be put on hold this year. But there are still plenty of ways to mark the passing of the year and to find joy in the season. “If you can’t go on vacation this year, find something festive you can enjoy nearby while socially distancing—like visiting a botanical garden or driving through a town that is known for its beautiful holiday decorations,” says Jennings.

Also, plan ahead for next year. In the end, the best thing to remember is that this situation is temporary, and the safety precautions we're taking now can keep us healthy until the vaccines are distributed. Grab yourself a hot apple cider, peppermint mocha, or glass of mulled wine, and sit down and write out a plan for what you’ll do in 2021, when hopefully the COVID-19 pandemic will be in the rearview mirror. Compose a menu for your holiday dinner for 20 guests, consider who you'll invite and what activities you’ll organize, or go online and check out vacation spots. In fact, research shows that simply planning and anticipating a vacation gives us as big a boost of happiness as actually taking the trip does.

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