With the festive season upon us, many are facing the reality that they may be spending the holidays apart from family and friends because of the pandemic.
To help us prepare for a different kind of holiday this year (again), especially the isolation and loneliness, we spoke with Dr. Carlin Barnes and Dr. Marketa Wills, two Harvard-trained psychiatrists and the co-authors of Understanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and Friends.
Barnes and Wills discussed how to deal with your feelings about the holidays, ways to celebrate if you can’t be with your loved ones, and how to talk to family members who may not understand why you’re keeping your distance. Here are the 10 key tips they shared to cope with being alone this season.
If you haven’t yet, start planning now
“The first thing that we recommend is to have a plan,” Barnes explained.
Decide in advance what your holiday is going to look like for both yourself and your family. Create a timeline for everything you’re going to do leading up to the holidays — like writing cards, baking or purchasing/making gifts — and how you’re going to spend the days that you usually celebrate with loved ones.
Accept that things are different this year
“The second tip is to acknowledge that it is different this year,” Barnes advised, “and feelings may come up that we’re not used to dealing with around the holidays.”
For many people, the holidays are a time of cheer and making memories. This holiday season, we may face other feelings, like loneliness, disappointment and anger.
“Be honest about how you’re feeling about all of this, and once you’ve had that courageous conversation with yourself, your family members and your friends, challenge yourself to think outside of the box,” Barnes said.
Even though the way you celebrate may be different, be mindful and prepare yourself for this reality, then think of ways you can still make some good holiday memories.
Don’t feel guilty about finding joy in the season
“It’s a complicated time,” Barnes said. “There are aspects of the pandemic that many people have grown to like. With less hustle and bustle, we’ve had an opportunity to appreciate what may have once been considered mundane.
“The guilt is real, feeling guilty that you’re OK while others are not and struggling with how to process those emotions.”
If we find joy in things like decorating the Christmas tree or putting up lights outside, we shouldn’t feel bad about it. We can acknowledge the stress, uncertainty, change and loss that we’ve experienced, and still find reasons to celebrate.
Remember this is temporary
Yes, holidays like Christmas are special for many of us, but keep in mind that it’s also a day with a beginning and an end.
“Even though you may feel alone, you are not alone. We’re all going through this around the globe,” Wills pointed out.
Remember that though you may be celebrating apart from those you care about this year to keep everyone safe and healthy, you’ll be able to celebrate together in future years.
Find other ways to celebrate with loved ones
Despite everything, the holidays are not cancelled; they just have to be celebrated differently. Even if you can’t physically be with your loved ones due to gathering size or travel restrictions, there are still ways to connect with others and keep the spirit of the holidays alive.
“Even though you’re mourning, you still have an opportunity to engage and connect, and to create special memories,” Barnes said.
If your family is in another city, have a family dinner together via video call, or if your loved ones are nearby, arrange a drive-by visit. Other things to consider are watching a movie virtually with friends and family, or rediscovering long, meaningful phone conversations. No matter how you decide to celebrate, be thoughtful and intentional.
“Acknowledge that this might be difficult to get through, but do the best that you can to enjoy yourself,” Barnes said.
Tell your family why you’re not celebrating with them in person
One of the most difficult things you may have to do this year is explaining to family why you’re choosing to stay away, whether you can’t get on a plane or because you’re keeping it small this year.
“It’s a real thing, and people are going to be on the giving and receiving end of those messages,” Barnes shared.
Wills added, “Those are tough conversations, and neither side feels great.”
Both doctors prescribed telling those people in advance and being very clear and thoughtful about the reasons you won’t be joining them. One way to phrase it, according to Barnes, is to say, “I’m not feeling comfortable celebrating in the traditional way for the sake of safety.”
Be sensitive and empathetic to their feelings and let them know it’s not a rejection. Offer alternate ways to celebrate with them, like a socially distanced exchange of food or a drive-by visit. Most of all, be respectful of their feelings, ask that they respect your decision, and let them know that even though things are different this year, we can still say we celebrated as a family.
Incorporate self-care into your plan
If you’re accustomed to big celebrations and gatherings, whether you’re the one who usually hosts a huge feast or you’re part of the festivities at a family member’s house, you may feel lost without your traditional routine. A way to help combat these feelings is to incorporate self-care into your plan, especially on key days like Christmas.
“When you wake up that morning, meditate or get some exercise outdoors,” Barnes suggested.
Without the hectic schedule, allow yourself to enjoy the slower pace by taking a long bath, reading or even having an afternoon nap.
Despite the loss, be grateful for what you have
At a time like this, it’s easy to get caught up in negativity and everything that you’re missing out on.
“We’re all dealing with loss in some way, whether it’s the ability to go to a store without a mask, or feeling comfortable in a restaurant. But recognize there’s still so much in this world to be grateful for,” said Wills.
Take time to recognize and feel gratitude for everything and everyone that’s good in your life.
READ MORE: 8 manifestation methods you need to try ASAP
Consider adopting a pet
“One thing I’ve been telling people to do is get a pet,” Wills told us. “Pets have been a wonderful relief while getting through the uncertainty of the pandemic. For people who are living alone, it’s a great way to manage in a healthy way.”
Besides helping with loneliness, there are so many health benefits to adopting a pet, like reducing stress, anxiety and depression, and improving cardiovascular health. If you bring a dog into your life, it will give you more reasons to go outdoors for walks and fresh air every day.
Talk to a professional
“For whatever reason, if getting through the holiday season is something that is so terrifically painful for you to bear, it’s definitely worth reaching out and seeking professional help,” recommended Wills. “That’s what professional mental health specialists are there for.”
A mental health professional can help you process negative emotions, find solutions and gain insight into why you may be experiencing these feelings. They can also help by cognitively restructuring your thoughts so you can move forward.
If you’ve never gone to therapy but you’re overwhelmed by the holiday season, consider seeking out that extra support. And if you already have a therapist, Wills emphasized the importance of checking in with them, even if you’re not experiencing any symptoms related to the holidays.