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Published on December 21, 2021

Handling the stress of the 2021 holidays

Holiday Stress

The holidays are often emotionally fraught, but this year is proving to be even harder than most as we enter our third pandemic winter. A lot of people are already emotionally depleted and the holidays, with their high expectations of joy and merriment, can exacerbate anxiety and feelings of loss and trauma.

Psychiatrist Paula Kirby-Long, MD at the Cape Cod Healthcare Centers for Behavioral Health has noticed that a lot of her patients are struggling with the upcoming holidays.

“I think this is such a tough year because a couple of months ago we were anticipating that the coronavirus was receding and we would be able to do the big celebration that had been postponed for a couple of years,” she said. “Now with all the complications of coronavirus coming back, I’m finding so many families are having internal disagreements about how to celebrate.”

Families are debating who should visit whom and whether unvaccinated relatives should be included in the family festivities. Another sticking point is whether a previous bout with COVID-19 offers the same protection as two vaccines and a booster. There are no perfect answers and the uncertainty is making plans more complicated than people anticipated.

“Another thing that is coming up for a lot of people is they were hoping to make a big splash and be more generous with the kids after having such a slimmed down, marginal holiday last year,” Dr. Kirby-Long said. “Now inflation is coming up and a lot of people still aren’t working and the stimulus money has been spent. People are really struggling this holiday season.”

She’s noticed that the stress is especially hard for the matriarchs of families because they are usually the ones who work the hardest to make everyone happy, which adds extra pressure. Dr. Kirby-Long understands that it is tempting for moms to stay up late at night trying to do all of the last-minute things that will delight the kids, but she doesn’t recommend it because that means moms are neglecting themselves.

Her advice is to keep things in balance. Even if your to-do list is long, make sure you still get enough sleep, keep up your exercise routine and eat healthy meals.

“I remember trying to stay up late to wrap presents and then I would be so cranky the next day,” she said. “The kids don’t want a cranky parent. They want a parent who is relaxed, so let’s let go of some of the things and pare down and make it simpler.”

New Traditions

So often people mindlessly follow the same traditions year after year. But many of us were forced to take a break from those traditions last year, and now some people realize they are not looking forward to resuming them again. That’s perfectly fine, said Dr. Kirby-Long. One of the few silver linings of the pandemic is it offers the perfect opportunity to revisit your holiday traditions to see if they are still working for your family.

It’s actually a healthy thing to do, according to Dr. Kirby-Long, because so often we do things just because we think we should, not because we enjoy doing them.

For example, do you have a huge open house every Christmas Eve just because your parents always did? Maybe taking last year off made you realize that you don’t enjoy the expense and the work of cooking all day, and then cleaning until long after midnight, just to have to get up and do another holiday celebration again the next day. A quieter Christmas Eve might be just what you desire after this exhausting year.

“The pandemic is actually the perfect excuse to jettison the things that we do just because they please the other generation and do your own traditions,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to turn it into a positive.”

The same thing should occur in reference to children, she said. She offered three questions that parents should ask themselves about holiday activities:

  • Is it healthy?
  • Is it important?
  • Do the kids actually enjoy it?

With that in mind, parents should seek their children’s input about what activities or traditions are most important to them. You might ask each child in the family what their favorite holiday tradition is and try to incorporate those things into your celebration and leave out the things the kids don’t enjoy as much. Maybe they’d rather have a family game night than stand outside in the freezing cold singing Christmas carols at the local general store. You won’t know unless you ask them.

It is especially important to check in with teenage children because the pandemic has been challenging for that age group. They’ve experienced more than a year of lockdown, Zoom school, no extracurriculars and less contact with friends, which has caused some adolescents serious emotional trauma. Parents can help by being as nurturing and calm as possible.

“Really allow them to tell you what would be helpful to them, what they would like, how they want to connect with peers, because they are so important at that age,” Dr. Kirby-Long said. “Maybe you can have kids connect outside like ice skating or walking or trying to do something with a friend to let them not feel so isolated. Also try to connect with any extended family, even remotely if necessary.”

Remembering Loved Ones

While all of us are feeling a little fragile this season, the holidays are especially difficult for those who have lost a loved one. The temptation may be to not mention the missing person, but it would actually be better psychologically to acknowledge the loss, Dr. Kirby-Long said. It’s much healthier to find a way to remember and celebrate the person who is gone rather than to pretend nothing has changed. You could even make that person part of your celebration.

For example, if a mother or grandmother has died, you could make her favorite holiday recipe as a way of honoring her presence in your lives. Other ideas include making a toast to a relative who is gone or hanging an ornament with their name or photograph on your Christmas tree. You could light a candle and say a prayer or create a memory jar so family members can share their favorite remembrances.

“The really important things about the holidays are our connections with people and family,” Dr. Kirby-Long said. “Avoid all of the hoopla, and make the family connections and religious or spiritual connections the most important thing.”