Graphic via Shutterstock
Graphic via Shutterstock

Being forced to break with long-time traditions, especially during the holidays, can lead to sadness, frustration, and a feeling of disconnectedness. Here are six ways to cope.

It’s that time of year again—the time we’d normally start reading features on “How to protect yourself from toxic family members at the holidays.” But through the pleasant fog of memory, your cranky uncle may now seem tolerable—benevolent, even. 

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, the pandemic has certainly made some of us desperate to break bread with the very relatives we could barely stomach during Christmases past. Sure, they’d show up unmasked, but they’re family. We’re supposed to be together at the holidays. 

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And the coronavirus outbreak was supposed to be over (like magic, someone said) by Easter. Yet it lingers. In fact, it’s surging again in some parts of the country. “We are headed in the wrong direction,” one John Hopkins University epidemiologist said. 

So, we’re going to have to forego some traditions if we want to keep ourselves and those we love safe. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s go-to guy on COVID-19, is altering his holiday plans. “I think people should be very careful … about social gatherings, particularly when members of the family might be at risk because of their age or their underlying condition,” he said on CBS earlier this week. “Namely, you may have to bite the bullet and sacrifice that social gathering unless you’re pretty certain that the people that you’re dealing with are not infected.” 

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Being forced to break with long-time traditions can lead to sadness, frustration, and a feeling of disconnectedness, said Allison Todd, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina. And those are just the short-term impacts. Over the long term, COVID-inflicted isolation can lead to apathy, depression, (or worsening depression) and anxiety. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns that long-term effects could even include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

It is possible, Todd said, to adjust your traditions for the upcoming holiday season and stay safe—especially if your gatherings are small and everyone is masked and socially distanced.  Out-of-town family or family members in a high-risk group (seniors, those with suppressed immune systems, etc.) can participate by—you guessed it—Zoom or FaceTime. 

It doesn’t have to be a blue Christmas—or a lonesome Halloween. “We can still connect,” Todd said.

Here are a few pointers:  

  • Create new traditions. The fall holidays, beginning with Halloween and going through Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, will look different this year. That doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate. 

    For Halloween, Todd suggests families with young children still dress up. “Maybe Mom and Dad or anyone who’s in the household turns it into a family affair by all going in costume,” she said. “You can move the party indoors or limit it to the back yard.” 

    If you choose not to go door-to-door (or if your neighborhood or local government has put the kibosh on trick-or-treating), go door-to-door within your own house. Each member of the family can have a different kind of candy in their room. 

    Get creative, Todd said. Have a scavenger hunt. Watch a kid-friendly “scary” movie. Make your own Halloween desserts instead of collecting candy. Who knows? You may hit on a tradition you enjoy so much that you keep it up, even after the COVID threat is over.  
  • Practice gratitude. “Nothing is normal now,” Todd said. “But try to keep things as normal as possible.” Practicing gratitude can help. Maybe your family is far flung and it’s always been a challenge to get everyone together for the holidays? Celebrate the technology that allows you to be “together” this holiday season. 

    In fact, look for reasons to be grateful. Celebrate small things. Try to turn a negative into a positive, Todd said. The pandemic has made our worlds smaller, but it’s also allowed us to focus on the friends and family dearest to us. 
  • Remind yourself: You’re OK. Acknowledge your feelings. “Whatever you’re feeling is normal and OK,” Todd said. “Thoughts and feelings are automatic. You can’t control them. You can control what you do with them.”
  • Channel your anger. Anger is normal, especially in times when you feel like you don’t have control. Journaling and physical exercise are two ways to deal with it and make sense of it.
  • Acknowledge your multitude of feelings. “Two things can be true at the same time,” Todd said. (As did Walt Whitman.) “You can be angry about COVID and grateful that you and your family are healthy. It’s not all or nothing.” 

    Conflicting emotions are normal, she continued: “You might feel guilt and relief at the same time, for instance. You may feel guilty about the relief you feel that you don’t have to see that troublesome relative over the holidays. Whatever you’re feeling is what you’re supposed to feel. Don’t judge yourself.”

  • Challenge negative thoughts when you have them. “Anxiety tells us lies,” Todd said. “Anxiety tells us that COVID is going to last forever and that we’ll never be back to normal. But that’s irrational. We know this isn’t forever.” When such feelings begin to overwhelm you, remember that they’re based in emotion, not fact. “It’s easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole, but you can stop yourself,” she added.

READ MORE: America’s Mental Health Crisis Is Exploding During the Coronavirus Pandemic