Coping with Family Holiday Stress in the Time of COVID

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The holidays are already stressful for many families. Expectations are high, and we might be interacting (or expected to interact) more than we normally do with family far and wide. The season is primed for good and not-so-good memory making and all sorts of family stress.

And that was BEFORE the 2020 global pandemic, y’know, turned our social worlds on their axis. Before we might have worried about that awkward uncle bringing up politics over a Christmas ham. Now we have to worry that our very presence at the table might seriously affect that awkward uncle’s health or livelihood.

Attitudes surrounding COVID are at the forefront for many families this year. Do we get together? If we don’t, will I miss my loved one’s last holiday? If we do, will I contribute to my loved one’s or my own last holiday?

With few clear answers, many families are finding they are on opposite sides of this painful divide.

So how do we cope?

Focus on What You Can Control

The pandemic has really highlighted how little we actually control. In my work as a psychologist, I’ve noticed more and more in the past nine months how helpless and out of control my patients (and myself) are feeling. In addition to not being able to control this virus, we cannot control others’ attitudes about it or others’ behavior choices around protecting themselves and others from this invisible enemy. 

Holidays may be spent alone this Christmas.

But we do have some control. And during any period like this, it helps to focus on what we do control.

We control what choices we make around our behavior this holiday season. And that might include making choices in line with our values, but upset others. The key is accepting that it’s okay for our families to have their own reactions and feelings to our choices, even if those feelings and reactions are painful or distressing. We are really only in control of what we do with our feelings and how we choose to react. That’s it!

Be present now and remember this won’t last forever.

Eventually, this pandemic will be better controlled, and we will be able to get back to partying like it’s 1999 (cue Prince). While we can’t know for sure when that might be, there’s significant progress being made that could shape our ability to celebrate together even next year. 

As humans we tend to feel especially overwhelmed, depressed, and anxious when we get overly fused with or focused on a particular belief about how something “should” be. The holidays, chockfull of traditions, have our human brains especially tuned in to comparing what is this year with how it “should” be based on years past.

But so often this focus on the past and what “should” be disables us from being present in and appreciating what is available to us right now. 

Where to Spend Mental Energy

So if this holiday is a little skimpy and sad, who’s to say you can’t make up for it with a special Christmas in July? Or focus on how wonderful it is that we have the technology to open gifts over Zoom, instead of lamenting that the traditions aren’t as they “should” be this year.

Unfortunately, nothing really is as it “should” be for most people this year. A bunch of our holiday traditions simply aren’t available or aren’t safe.

But everything is how it is. And you know what? It sucks, and it is sad, and disappointing. Accepting this, and those feelings, and finding gratitude in what remains can help us get through and make meaning, even during this totally bizarre holiday.

The holidays and families are all about . . .

Love

There are creative ways to be “together” in heart and spirit, even when we’re many miles away. We can show our love through a simple text or FaceTime call, a holiday package shipped straight from Amazon, a batch of cookies dropped on a doorstep, and all the other ways we as humans have adapted our expressions of love during the time of COVID.

There are even ways to convey love when we are at odds with our very own families about whether or how to celebrate this holiday season. There will be disappointments and sadness and anger this holiday season. But there can, and will also, be love.

Happy wild and weird 2020 holidays to all! Here’s hoping 2021 brings that awkward uncle’s political discussions back to the forefront of our worries. 

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Graduate school brought Laura from her beloved home state of Colorado to Texas (hard to beat the Rocky Mountains!), and meeting her beloved husband Jonathan convinced her to settle here. Now the two are overjoyed and exhausted parents to sweet Christopher (2015) and a little girl on the way (2017). In addition to her role as a mama, she also works full time as a clinical psychologist working with military veterans who continue to amaze her with their strength and humor. When she’s not busy juggling career and parenthood, you can find her cycling, enjoying local culture (and food!), baking, “hiking,” and embracing her love of travel.

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