Coping with Holiday Stress during COVID

For many people who go to therapy, or are considering therapy, the holidays can be incredibly stressful. I’m writing this article during COVID, which adds many layers of stress for many. I thought it might be helpful to share some tips for healthy coping. I have tips for coping with family and for coping with loss and loneliness.

If Family Events Trigger You:

  1. Remember you’re not alone. The famed yogi Ram Dass said once, “If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family.” He’s absolutely right on this. Family has a way of getting under our skin like no one else can. It makes sense, considering they often installed the buttons that they are pushing! It can help some to remember that finding family events difficult is a very common scenario.
  2. Gray rock. Gray rock is the name of a communication technique that was originally meant to be used with narcissists but it can stave off a variety of dysfunctional interactions. With the Gray rock method, you become uninteresting to the other person, and don’t share much unique/personal/sensitive information. For an in-depth discussion of this technique, go here.
  3. Mindfulness. I know, you’ve heard this word a lot, but there’s some truth to how helpful it can be. When talking about family events triggering stress, taking a mindful approach means getting curious. It can look a little bit like this: Oh that’s interesting. Aunt Bertha started talking about how she thinks so and so is a conspiracy and I notice that my chest gets tight, and I get a sensation of heat around my ears. I notice this urge to confront her rising up in me. By noticing the experience, we get a little bit of distance from it, and can more easily choose how to respond. Without this mindful perspective, we are more likely to simply react to those impulses.
  4. Self-talk. For some, family triggers a feeling of danger at a very primal level, but you may not be willing or able to get away from them during the holidays. If your situation involves any kind of abuse happening in your present life, I highly recommend that you make an exit strategy and seek support through local resources. If your feelings of threat are from the past, then self-talk can be helpful here. Notice the story rising up in you. Is it the story of the childhood version of yourself? If so, then you can remind yourself that you are an adult now, and you have more options now than you did back then. You can leave the room if you need to, or hide in the bathroom and meditate or scroll social media.
  5. Call on your family of choice. If you have a support network outside of your family, enlist their help. You can do it directly by saying your fam is driving you crazy, or indirectly by sending them funny memes to engage them in communication. Communicating with people we feel safe and happy around can lower stress levels.

If Loneliness or Grief Triggers You…

  1. Journal. Journaling can be a wonderful way to sort through our thoughts and feelings. If you lost a loved one, holidays can sometimes be especially tough. Consider using the journal to write to your loved one, as a thought experiment. Tell them how much you miss them, and what you miss about them.
  2. Volunteer. Many therapists recommend trying to come home to ourselves, because so many people hide from their inner experience. But if you are feeling intense loneliness or loss, then turning inward may not be helpful. Certainly, we don’t want to run from our feelings, but you may also need some relief. Volunteering is a great way to get a break from unrelenting emotional pain and has been shown in research to help with depression. COVID complicates volunteering opportunities in many areas, but you may be able to find socially distanced volunteering opportunities. While it isn’t the same as volunteering in person, there are many opportunities available through this website.
  3. Use Crisis Lines. That is what they are there for. You don’t have to be suicidal to call a crisis line. Text HOME to 741741 to reach a trained crisis counselor for messaging support. You can find many options for crisis communication at this website for suicide hotlines.
  4. Get cozy. Self-care is always important, but when you are feeling down it can be even more so. Get a fuzzy robe, some warm socks, a cup of your favorite beverage and a book or magazine you’ve been meaning to read. If you’re in an area with milder weather, maybe even sit outside and enjoy the fresh air.
  5. Consider memorialization. Some families find it helpful to have an empty chair at the holiday dinner table for a loved one who has passed away. Others find it helpful to have a framed photo of the loved one and to light a candle in their honor when they are feeling the loss. Honor what your inspiration tells you to recognize the person that used to be in your life.

Remember there are many types of losses, and it is normal to grieve any type of loss. During a global pandemic, you may be dealing with death of a loved one or several acquaintances, loss of a job, loss of access to places you cannot go in person right now, loss of vacations that had to be cancelled, loss of health insurance, loss of physical health, loss of access to important relationships, and more. Be gentle with yourself, and do your best to be gentle with others. Just about everyone has some kind of loss right now.

Coping with holiday stress isn’t easy. Honor yourself and your feelings. Check in with yourself each day and ask yourself what you need to feel healthy and well. Make space for yourself to feel what is happening within you, and plan ahead so you also have activities to distract yourself when things get overwhelming. Do your best to find a balance, and enjoy what you can when you can.

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