How to Handle the Holidays

A illustration of a family celebrating Thanksgiving.

Making holiday plans during a global pandemic requires some mental gymnastics. We’re planning meals, scheduling kids’ vaccinations, navigating COVID-19 travel guidance and sorting out sleeping arrangements, all while a highly infectious respiratory virus continues to circulate our communities.

“The world is currently experiencing the largest social isolation experiment in human history,” says Jeremiah Eckhaus, MD, a family medicine physician at UVM Health Network – Central Vermont Medical Center. “After periods of isolation it can be difficult to reenter society.”

Dr. Eckhaus and Aron Steward, Ph.D., Chief of Psychology at UVM Health Network – Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, explain how the combination of infection prevention measures paired with hypervigilance, anxiety and depression throughout the pandemic may impact our mental health and feelings about holiday gatherings. They also offer tips to ease anxieties and help you prepare for time shared with family and friends.

What You May Be Feeling

  • Hypervigilance: “Hypervigilance is a big word for ‘being ready for anything,’” says Dr. Steward. “You’re attempting to avoid adverse outcomes by being prepared. Or you hyper-focus on what could happen, rather than what is happening.” You may feel your hands sweating, heavy breathing and muscle tension, otherwise known as your “flight or fight” response.
  • Anxiety: An increasing number of U.S. adults have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of anxiety include: chronic feelings or worry; severe fear reactions; impairment in sleep and eating; perceiving surrounding environment with dread.
  • Depression: “Anxiety and depression go hand-in-hand for many of us,” says Dr. Steward. The symptoms of depression are similar, but can also include a feeling of ongoing sadness and tearfulness; an inability to find joy in previously pleasurable activities; a lack of motivation.

How To Prepare When Visiting Others

There's a lot we don't yet know about COVID-19, such as the severity of the new omicron variant, but there is a lot we do know about infection prevention. Because vaccines do not provide 100 percent protection, the idea of “safe” is not a yes/no idea. The COVID-19 vaccines are very effective at preventing severe illness and death, but even still, each family will need to decide for itself how much safer it needs to be before gathering. As infectious disease expert Tim Lahey, MD, of UVM Medical Center says: "It's a good time to make sure we're being wise in the way we get together. It's best to gather with people who are vaccinated, use rapid tests and wear a mask in indoor, public spaces."

Remember to get back to basics and follow these proven infection prevention measures:

  • Get vaccinated
  • Wear a mask when in public, indoor spaces 
  • Stay six feet apart
  • Stay home when sick
  • Get tested
  • Wash your hands

It can be exhausting. Regaining a sense of normalcy during a global pandemic isn’t easy, according to Dr. Steward. But here’s the good news: “We are built to survive and thrive after adversity,” she says. “As humans, we have a lot of tools to bounce back after we’ve experienced a challenge or hardship.”

She suggests trying the following proven coping strategies when approaching the holidays:

  • Be mindful: Pay attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way, return when the mind wanders, and cut yourself some slack. “If difficult conversations come up around the dinner table, this will help you prepare for those stressful moments and difficult conversations."
  • Express Gratitude: Research shows spending time acknowledging what we are grateful for helps our brain feel better and be prepared for difficult situations. “Negativity can be contagious,” says Dr. Eckhaus. “Practicing gratitude can help us turn negatives into positives through reframing.”
    • Shift thinking from what is missing to what is present. Example: “I wish my sister were here” can become “I’m lucky my brother made the trip.”
    • Look for the post-traumatic growth opportunities. Shift away from, “That conversation  was miserable” to “What did I learn from that?”
  • Set boundaries: It’s important to set boundaries to prioritize your own health. “If somebody is expressing something to you, remember, that is their experience. You don’t have to own it, value it or believe their belief system. But you can still hear them. Take some mental distance to keep a healthy boundary in your head and heart,” says Dr. Steward. This could become particularly useful advice if political conversations arise and family members have differing opinions.

Finally, protect time for yourself, and let go of your fear of saying no. You don’t have to join every family activity.

  • Don’t forget to laugh: “Laughing, or even just smiling, can release powerful brain and nervous system chemicals,” says Dr. Eckhaus. “There is a lot of research on how humor and laughter can increase endorphins and stimulate our immune system.”

In other words, relax, be joyful and be well.

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