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5 Health Experts Weigh in on How to Handle the 2020 Holiday Season

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The end of the year can be a stressful period, even under normal circumstances. For some, it may be the harried pace of keeping up with added demands at work and finishing up whatever needs to get done before the holidays. For others, it may be the loneliness of not being with loved ones. For nurses and healthcare workers, there is the added strain of overburdened hospital beds and limited resources.

This year, of course, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into people’s annual traditions, and many are grappling with the question of what to do for the holidays, particularly given the spikes in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving.

To help people think through their holiday plans, we asked a panel of health experts what their recommendations were. As might be expected, the general consensus was that the best and safest thing is to forgo traditional plans for traveling or gathering and stick with virtual get-togethers on Zoom or other digital platforms. If in-person gatherings can’t be avoided, however, there are measures to help minimize the risks. Also included here are tips for tending to your mental health and well-being in general, considering the added stress of the pandemic during an already busy time.

Jennifer Henry, Director of the Counseling Center at Maryville University

Get creative and explore ways to connect with your loved ones, despite the circumstances. Stay in touch over the phone, through group texts, or set up a virtual gathering so you can still interact with your loved ones in some way. Focus on self-care in these situations. One way to do that is to reframe the situation from “I’m going to be alone this holiday season and it’s going to be miserable” to “I have the opportunity to really focus on self-care over the holidays this year.” Be intentional about creating and implementing your self-care plan, so that it becomes a unique and special time that you appreciate. For example, you could create a week’s worth of activities for yourself such as: read a book, write letters to loved ones, watch a favorite movie every night, cook your favorite meals each evening, work on a list of hopes and goals for 2021, work on a list of things you are grateful for or proud of from 2020, do an at-home spa treatment each day, meditate, pray, or connect with your faith system. Believe it or not, you might end up looking back on your “Season of Self-Care” as a positive and meaningful time in your life. Remember that being alone does not mean you have no one. That’s called emotional reasoning: the belief that if I feel a certain way that means it is true. Being alone just means you are alone during a certain period of time, not forever, and only physically. Think of ways that you can help others during this time. If you have a neighbor who is going to be alone, leave them a card outside their door or order them some carry-out when you order yours. If you have an elderly neighbor, take a moment to shovel their snow or offer to pick up their groceries. Reach out to people who might be in need and you’ll find that your heart (and theirs) will be lifted. Go on a social media detox. Remember that social media is a “highlight reel” of people’s happy times. When you log in and see people with their families or doing something amazing, it can leave you feeling like “everyone is having fun.” In actuality, many people are in your same boat, they just aren’t posting about it. So, I’d encourage you to log off social media and focus on enjoying real interactions over the phone/text/Zoom with your loved ones or focus on enjoying the self-care and relaxation plans you put in place.

Mai-Ly Nguyen, Steers Assistant Professor within the Duquesne University School of Nursing

The holidays can be a lonely time for many people even under normal circumstances. However, the pandemic has compounded these feelings. So how can you combat the blues if you cannot spend the holidays with friends and family? According to Attention Restoration Theory,  just being in nature can serve as a reset button to restore you. Take a hike to somewhere you have never visited. Rediscover parks and trails you have not been to in a long time. If bad weather is preventing you from enjoying the great outdoors, try practicing gratitude by keeping a journal in which you list what you are grateful for each day. This will allow you to take stock of all the positive aspects of your life and shift the focus away from all the things you might feel like you’re missing out on.

Sarah E. Raskin, Assistant Professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Online program at Virginia Commonwealth University

The best way to stay safe this holiday season is to stay home, and stay focused on the happy reunion that your family will get to enjoy next year. I completely understand how hard this is. My own family gathered over Zoom to celebrate Passover, Thanksgiving, and Chanukah. But as Thanksgiving just taught us, travel is increasing case counts. Fortunately, it looks like we’re on track for the wide distribution of the vaccine in time for Christmas 2021!

Renee Broughton, Professor, Department of Interprofessional Education/Henrietta Schmoll School of Health at St Catherine University

As we enter the last couple of weeks of the year, be kind to yourself. If you are tired, find moments to rest.  If you are overwhelmed, find time to take short breaks for something you love. This holiday season is likely going to look different than those in the past. Take advantage of the opportunity to create a unique experience.  Let go of any self-imposed expectations of perfection and give yourself permission to be “good enough.”  If you find that you are feeling anxious or stressed, take a moment to hit pause. You don’t have to carve out a half hour to meditate in a darkened room to get the benefit of mindfulness. Just take one minute for five deep, slow breaths with each inhalation, think about breathing in peace and calm, and send out peace and calm with each exhalation. You’ve got this.

Alyssa Lederer, Assistant Professor and Program Director in the Master of  Public Health Program at Tulane University 

Even though it is the holiday season, limit contact with people outside of your household and workplace. If this isn’t possible, wear a mask, physically distance, and quarantine to the degree you’re able, both before and after visiting others. Cases will likely spike due to the holidays, and as members of a healing profession, you want to make sure to protect yourself, your loved ones, your patients, and your colleagues. During this very different holiday season, think creatively about ways to be socially close even while physically distant with those you care about, such as opening presents over Zoom or sending videos of kids or a pet. There may be new ways to engage in cherished family traditions. Encourage others to get the vaccine once it is available. You will be a trusted source of information, and the more willing people are to get vaccinated, the sooner life should be able to return to normal. Have hope for 2021. There is finally an end in sight for the pandemic. Take some time for yourself to rest and rejuvenate.

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