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Managing Holiday Stress During a Pandemic


with Meghan Watson, M.A., RP

The holidays are right around the corner. For some people, this is exciting news, while for others, the holidays can be downright stressful. With the addition of a pandemic and the feelings of anxiety and loss that accompany it, it’s easy to see why some of us may be feeling more stressed out than usual. I sat down with Meghan Watson, M.A., RP, a registered psychotherapist, for a (virtual) discussion focused on how we can prepare for and navigate these feelings this holiday season.


What is it about this season that can create so much tension?

The holiday season can be overwhelming on the best of days. At the end of the day, it is a feat for many to bring family together, schedule and plan gatherings, make sure kids are entertained and comfortable, get a big meal on the table and keep yourself sane at the same time.

You may be bringing family and friends together who may not all get along, or meeting new people and wanting to put your best self forward. This is a considerable amount of pressure for individuals and for families. People look forward to the holiday seasons all year, so acknowledging that there is undeniable tension can be a helpful way to deflate undue personal responsibility for everyone to have a great time. Old resentments and conflicts may resurface from previous holiday seasons. If these conflicts remain unresolved, this will contribute to the perfect storm of anxiety and internal pressure.

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This particular holiday season is going to be different compared to years past. Our country is in the midst of a pandemic and there are so many families who are headed into the season coping with intense feelings of loss. What would you say to someone who is dealing with loss this holiday season?

The holiday season gives us much to be thankful for. However, for those of us who are living with the impact of loss this year, it can be stressful to navigate the emotional changes the season will bring. Managing loss is a complex process. Like grief, loss looks and feels different for everyone. The pandemic has touched almost every aspect of our lives, and challenged many of us beyond our current resilience. No matter how diverse our feelings of loss are this year, here are some helpful ways to support others during the holidays:

Be present with them.
When you’re spending time with someone who is coping with a loss, it can be meaningful to be an active listener in conversation. Listen intently and pay attention to cues around their comfort level to share openly. Put away any distractions and focus on just being there.

Let them know there is no pressure to talk about things before they are ready.
When someone is sharing details on their challenges, ask what they might need. Avoid using phrases such as: “at least” or generic platitudes such as “time heals all wounds.” Try saying instead: “I’m here for you”, “I can’t imagine how stressful this is”, and “Is there anything you might need that I can help with?”

Recognize that loss during the holiday season can be especially sensitive.
Memories from seasons past can be difficult for many. It’s okay to reminisce and reflect on happy memories with your loved ones. Although people’s minds may be hyper focused on what has been lost, it can also be helpful to celebrate moments of joy and nostalgia.

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Can you share a few of the most common things that people stress over during the holidays? And how can you tell if someone is having a tough time coping with that stress?

This holiday season there will inevitably be additional stressors due to the pandemic. Now that we are attending more virtual gatherings from all over the world, there are more schedules to balance, time zones to navigate, and increased pressure to make things “feel like they used to.” Our regular holiday activities and events may be rescheduled, cancelled or postponed. With that, you might notice a few of these common stressors amongst your family and friends:


Whether you’re fighting with a close friend, negotiating with your children, or stuck in an opinion gridlock with partners or parents, the holidays can heat up our most stable interpersonal relationships. When people are struggling in their relationships they may notice ongoing small frustrations and annoyances leading to major arguments. Pay extra attention towards the relationships that count, and before arguing ask yourself: “Is what I want to say necessary, helpful or kind?”

Relationships with Food and/or Body Image

Everyone has a unique relationship and history with their food and body. Holiday season brings lots of comfort food as well as worries about weight, shape and size. Be mindful of discussing details of restrictive diets or making jokes about “working off” Thanksgiving dinner. Try not to comment on the eating habits of others at your dinner table, and minimize making statements about what someone is wearing. If you struggle with insecurities about your body or eating habits, be gentle with yourself. Wear comfortable clothes and challenge ideas that you have to look or be a certain way to be worthy.

Balancing Responsibilities between Home and Work

If you are one of the many people who are approaching almost a full year of working from home, you may be tested further by the pressures and demands of the holiday season. With kids home from school on break, restless pets, never ending zoom meetings, and end-of-year deadlines looming, finding a perfect balance seems next to impossible. Difficulty coping with your multiple worlds may look like distraction, trouble sleeping or having a tough time winding down. You might also notice the pressure to take on additional tasks or to be extra productive. Loosen expectations for yourself and try to do one thing at a time.

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What are some things to be watchful of as we try to maintain our mental wellness throughout this holiday season?

It can be easy to disengage from mindful self awareness when there is so much to do and navigate. Be watchful for ruptures in your regular routines around self care, and daily tasks around work and home life (e.g. excessive procrastination, avoidance of chores, increased substance use etc.)

Pay attention to your urges and tendency to self isolate beyond your regular personal time, excessive irritability towards yourself and loved ones, and impulsive patterns in relationships. Understanding how we respond to and adapt to changes in our environment, can allow us to be proactive about building in support networks and remind us to check in with our needs.

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Can you share a few concrete tips on how to cope or be proactive about managing holiday stress?

Process over perfection.

First things first: remember that striving for perfection can stray you away from your purpose. Know that when stress is high, you’re likely to be emotionally and physically exhausted and overwhelmed. Practice releasing the idea that you can control all outcomes.

Set boundaries and protect your peace.

Boundaries are like rubber bands. When overstretched they aren’t as functional or effective. When you set limits with yourself and the people in your life, you free up important space that you might have spent worrying and wondering about other things. Feelings of frustration and anger are a helpful cue to notice when boundaries are being tested or broken. It is okay to say no to a virtual gathering or turn down extra requests for your time, which can be draining and may lead to burnout. If you’re worried the boundaries you are setting are unreasonable, then try running it past someone you trust. However, know that how flexible your limits are remains completely up to you.

Practice being vulnerable.

If this sounds like an awful joke – hear me out. So much of our stressors in our life, especially around the holiday season are about connections with others. Can or should we go home for the holidays in the middle of a pandemic? What does a Covid-19 thanksgiving look like? How should I prepare my kids for changes in their holiday expectations? Vulnerability is all about connection and feeling safe to be our authentic selves. Be honest about what you’re experiencing when it feels appropriate. Don’t be afraid to confront difficult conversations and challenge your own ideas about what it means to show up.

Go to therapy.

Schedule an appointment with your therapist if you have one, or consider having an initial consultation. Therapy, if it’s accessible to you, can be a helpful touchpoint to ground yourself. It can help you prepare for oncoming holiday stress and gather coping skills and encouragement. If you’re not able to get to therapy because of time or resources, try writing out your thoughts and feelings and re-reading it a day or two later. Sometimes fresh eyes can give us much needed perspective when we take some distance from our internal dialogue.

Make time just for you.

The holidays are all about gathering (or virtual gathering!), and can test our most hardy of internal resources. Schedule personal time to engage in a meaningful ritual that brings you joy. Make a list of holiday activities that you can do by yourself that produce feelings of warmth and quiet joy. Celebrations don’t always have to be big, and finding a moment of peace for yourself can be extraordinarily fulfilling.

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