Stressing about the holidays? Protect your emotional health with these tips.

November 8, 2021 Swedish Health Team

[4 MIN READ]

In this article:

A Swedish behavioral health specialist offers help you protect your mental health this holiday season.

Use these strategies to reduce your stress level as you adapt your holiday traditions to protect your health during the pandemic.

Finding new ways to stay connected and celebrate safely helps battle feelings of loneliness, isolation and grief prompted by COVID-19.

We understand that it can be confusing and stressful to wade through all the news, recommendations and guidelines for keeping yourself and others safe, particularly at the holidays when many of us are planning to gather with friends and loved ones. To help you make the best decisions you can, our experts at Swedish have shared strategies and insights to help you protect yourself physically and mentally this holiday season.

In this second of two articles, behavioral health specialist McKenna Cosottile, Ph.D., offers some advice for protecting your emotional health at holiday time. Dr. Cosottile is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in finding solutions for disruptive behaviors prompted by stress, anxiety and depression. To learn more about protecting your physical health, look for our other article featuring our Regional Director of Infection Prevention, Evan Sylvester, [link to Evan’s article here] who answers some of the most frequently asked questions about COVID-19 and gathering safely during the holidays.

Q+A with McKenna Cosottile, Ph.D.: protecting our emotional health

Q: Coming into our second holiday season with COVID-19 present, what are some of the main concerns people have?

A: Going into the holidays this year, folks are fatigued and burned out from following COVID-19 safety protocols. Everyone was so hopeful that we would be well out of the pandemic at this point. Now, people are tasked with having to continue protecting their physical health – which often feels like it comes with compromising social and emotional health.   

With this burnout, we’re seeing some people becoming more relaxed with COVID-19 precautions so they can socialize and engage in their normal activities. This can be a point of contention in relationships. We have this divisiveness that comes from folks having different risk tolerances. This is a significant source of stress as folks try to make holiday plans that respect everyone’s comfort levels.   

Another major stress we’re hearing about is concern about the global supply chain issues. For folks who give gifts at the holidays, this feels scary. People are worried about being able to find and receive items in time for the holidays. 

Q: How can we cope with the stress of another holiday season during the pandemic? Are there any recommendations for staying grounded? 

A: The holidays tend to be stressful even during non-pandemic times, so it is absolutely natural that another COVID-19 holiday season may come with even more stress, disappointment and sadness. Acknowledging and honoring whatever feelings come up around the holidays is so important. Trying to fight against the toxic positivity that pressures us to say “everything is great” by instead acknowledging “this has been a tough year, again, and I’m tired” can be really powerful. This vulnerability and authenticity can help us connect with each other. It often takes less energy and is more freeing than trying to put on a brave face every day. 

Some practical strategies to stay grounded might include mindfulness practice, such as engaging the five senses. The next time you feel yourself getting overwhelmed or anxious, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • What are five things I can see?
  • What are four things I can feel?
  • What are three things I can hear?
  • What are two things I can smell?
  • What is one thing I can taste?

Another strategy is to remind yourself of what is important to you and find ways to safely engage in those activities. If connecting with family and protecting physical health are both priorities, maybe making cookie boxes and dropping them off at people’s doorsteps is a way you can honor both values. Even if it does not look exactly how you would like it to in a non-pandemic world, taking solace knowing you are doing what you can in your current context can be reassuring.

Finally, be sure to reduce overall vulnerability factors. Try the following strategies to improve your mental health:

  • Be physically active.
  • Breathe fresh air.
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
  • Drink enough water.
  • Eat balanced meals.  

Q: What are some ways to deal with having a holiday celebration if people have lost a loved one to COVID-19? 

A: It is so natural that feelings of grief and loss may be more pronounced during the holidays. Whatever you feel during this time is OK. It is also OK if that morphs and changes over time. Grief is non-linear and there is no right way to grieve.

With this in mind, folks may find comfort in different coping strategies. For some, maintaining old traditions may be important. For others, it may be more helpful to start totally new traditions or to avoid celebrating the holidays altogether. It is essential you check in with yourself and be honest about what you think would be most helpful. And to give yourself permission to change your mind if what you’re doing is not working.  

No matter how you choose to cope, it is important to remain connected to loved ones. While it may be tempting to shut down and isolate, this often exacerbates loneliness and grief. If you know you may be vulnerable to isolating, it may be helpful to reach out to trusted friends and family. Request check-ins or schedule get-togethers as the holidays get nearer.  

Q: What advice do you give to people who are struggling with strained relationships during the holidays due to the stresses of the pandemic?  

A: The pandemic has put unique stressors on relationships, especially when there are differences in COVID-related safety behaviors. It will be important for people to know their own needs and boundaries before the holiday season to navigate making plans. Some of this may relate to COVID-safety behavior, such as only committing to gatherings that are taking place outside.

Other parts of this may relate to the capacity to participate in multiple social engagements with others who are also stressed. Commit to social engagements intentionally. It is OK and helpful to set boundaries regarding how many events people attend and what topics are off-limits for discussion. It’s also important that people remember that they can say no to gatherings and not respond to texts or phone calls they don’t have the capacity to manage. 

Q: How can parents help kids cope with a COVID-19 holiday and potentially not seeing loved ones?

A: There are still plenty of ways to make the holidays enjoyable! Consider what is within your bandwidth to plan and execute, then schedule one or two activities to look forward to. Families can get creative with low-cost, low-effort activities. Maybe it is a pajama-hot-cocoa-movie-marathon, cutting snowflakes out of paper to hang around the house or driving around a new neighborhood to search for holiday lights.

For families who cannot see loved ones, find ways to honor and connect with them. Send homemade cards or goodies. Put extra pictures of them around the house.

Of course, technology continues to be our friend. Schedule time to video chat with loved ones as well. While we are tired of virtual gatherings and prefer in-person visits with real hugs, connecting over technology still offers more connection than not connecting at all. 

Q: How can people deal with anxiety about safety during holiday gatherings?

A: Ultimately, managing general anxiety and safety-related anxiety comes back to knowing your own needs and giving yourself permission to set boundaries. With safety-related concerns, there are real risks that folks may want to minimize exposing themselves to. And that’s OK. Watch out for general anxiety though, which may convince you that avoiding activities is the best option, even when there are no real risks present.  

For safety-related concerns, folks should feel empowered to communicate openly and clearly about expectations. For example, is everyone attending a gathering vaccinated? Will people be wearing masks? All activities take a risk-benefit analysis, and everyone’s risk tolerance will be different. Make plans based on what is comfortable for you and remember it is OK to set these boundaries.            

It can feel disheartening that we are still here. Carve out small, mindful, intentional moments to connect with the parts of the season that can bring joy, comfort, peace or connection.

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Find a doctor

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor or behavioral health specialist virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.

Related resources

Helping kids face change and uncertainty

Flu and COVID-19 vaccine facts: What you need to know

Healing from COVID-19 one breath at a time

COVID-19 vaccines: FDA approval, boosters and third dose for immunocompromised

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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