COVID-19 stress isn't taking a break for the holidays. How experts say you should cope
It's a tradition for Nancy Haner Grantz to host a large crowd of family and friends for Thanksgiving dinner. The Louisville native opened her home to about 25 guests in 2019 to celebrate the holiday with turkey, stuffing and plenty of pie.
This year, she's limiting the number to three guests, including herself.
It's a move that's being reflected in homes across the country as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on our daily lives. So it's an understatement to say Thanksgiving 2020 will look very different this year, as will the rest of the holiday season, a time when extended family get-togethers, group celebrations and even holiday shopping are now considered a risk to our health.
Between parties, shopping, baking, cleaning, family meals and gift swapping, the persistent checklist of demands which may have caused you stress and anxiety last year has been replaced by the fear of the novel coronavirus — or giving it to someone you love.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation's October health tracking poll, two-thirds of the public are worried they or their family will get sick from the coronavirus, up 13 percentage points since April.
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, manypeople are shunning their holiday traditions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, but are now experiencing a different type of stress, replacing the hustle and bustle of having too much to do during the holiday season with uncertainty, isolation and the loss of routine and tradition.
And let's not forget the general stress of 2020, including the recent presidential election, the civil justice movement, the end of daylight savings time and the quarantine bubble we've been in for more than half the year.
"As we are coming up on the holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah — these are celebrations where families traditionally come together and the thought of planning for them during the pandemic is definitely weighing heavily on people's minds," said Dr. Monalisa Tailor with Internal Medicine at Norton Healthcare.
That stress is perhaps felt strongest among young adults, many of whom may be far away from home and looking at celebrating the holiday season alone for the first time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Household Pulse Survey shows the highest percentage of adults who report symptoms of anxiety or depression are 18-29-year-olds. Between Sept. 30 and Oct. 12, the most recent dates available in the survey, 44.7% reported feelings of anxiety or depression.
Statewide, Kentucky reported the second-highest percentage of people feeling anxiety across the nation at 37.8%, just points behind Nevada at 39.3%.
For many, the "loss" of the holiday season can plunge people into depression and cause extra stress on top of a very anxiety-inducing year. But health experts like Tailor say not to lose hope.
In her Highland neighborhood office, Tailor encourages herpatients, regardless of age,to do their best to redirect their thinking, keep aglass half full attitude and paint the future in a more positive light.
"I am reminding them we are staying apart or limiting our traditional celebrations because we need to stay safe," she said. "We may not be able to spend this holiday with our loved ones this year, but we are spending time apart so we can be with them next year and the year after that."
While this may be a concept most adults understand, it might not be so simple for children.
"All of our lives are up-ended right now, but remember that children are impacted by the stress of their parents," said Dr. Katy Hopkins, a pediatric psychologist with Norton Children’s Hospital. "So if parents are struggling with their mental health during the holidays, kids are likely to be impacted by that."
Think of it like the airline safety briefing that reminds people to put on their oxygen mask first before safely assisting those around them. Hopkins said when adults take care of their own mental health and wellbeing during this unusual time, children will benefit.
"There is so much ambiguity about when things will get back to normal, and kids don't necessarily handle that well," she said. "If you can start to talk with your family nowabout the fact that the holidays are going to be different this year, you can start to make plans to make sure it's a year to remember in a special way."
Although Hopkins' advice is directed towards kids who may be feeling a sense of loss and anxiety, it is actually something that can benefit every generation.
Now is the time to start talking about alternateplans. What are your family's favorite traditions, and which will you miss the most? Discuss creative ways your family can safely adjust your traditions to make them possible and joyful during a pandemic.
"The idea is to discuss how can you remain connected to the idea behind the meaning of the traditions so that kids (and adults) feel like that normalcy is still there," Hopkins said.
For instance, in a typical year, your extended family may bring food to share at a large Thanksgiving dinner. While the CDC warns that big gatherings are not safe this year, you could recreate the feeling of a shared meal by holding a pie contest or best-looking dessert competition over a virtual Zoom call.
"Or set up a time on Thanksgiving when the entire family joins on a Zoom call to play a game together," Tailor said. "Remind each other that this year we're looking for ways to be safe together but physically apart."
It's important to also keep older family members in mind as you create this year's holiday plans. Many are following COVID-19 protocols and have stayed isolated in order to remain healthy.
Group gatherings via Zoom can be a lifeline for the older generation but not if they don't know how to work the technology. Tailor reminds families to make certain to consider a lesson on group internet chats in advance of the holidays so everyone is comfortable with a virtual party and can take part.
If your family has gotten into the habit of spending time outdoors during the COVID-19 outbreak, include a walk, hike or bicycle ride as part of your holiday plans this year. Spending time outside, even just for a few minutes, will boost your mood and lower stress.
Remember, physical activity also has the added bonus of helping to burn a few of those pumpkin pie, mashed potato and gravy calories.
Of course, some holiday traditions simply won't be possible to celebrate safely during the virus outbreak. Let's say every year your family spends New Year's Eve at Times Square in New York City. It's important to start talking about a different way to celebrate.
"As a family, discuss starting a new tradition or come up with a way to celebrate in the same spirit," Hopkins said. "This year perhaps you agree to a small family-only party to watch the ball drop in Times Square on television."
Prioritizing "normalcy" for our kids it is going to serve us, too.
"The traditions of the holidays are just as important to us as it is for them. We just think we're better at ignoring the loss of all these things," Hopkins added.
Prisha Haheu, a young author in Louisville who wrote a book called "Pandemic 2020:A 9 Year Old's Perspective," said "mental health is a very important thing so I have come up with a lot of things to do to keep myself active during the pandemic."
The fifth-grade Lowe Elementary student's book includes tips for thriving from a child's point of view.
"I do a lot of things to keep myself busy like learning to cook recipes with my mom, dancing, talking to my friends and staying positive," she said.
The holidays during 2020 will be different and difficult for everyone, but there is a silver lining if you take the time to look, said Tailor.
"This is our opportunity to be more creative. Instead of all that holiday rushing around we typically do, this year we don't have to rush, we don't have to do all those big things," she said. "I feel like it can help us be more mindful and truly appreciate each other."
Just the blues, or something more?
Feeling extra sour this holiday season? Is it just the holiday blues or something more? Some key signs to look for include changes in mood or behavior that are different from the norm. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Does your loved one seem to be more withdrawn than usual?
- Are they sleeping excessively?
- Are they behaving more erratically and impulsively?
- Are they more irritable?
- Do they typically respond quickly to a text or phone call, but now they are not responding at all?
- It's also important to pay attention to the content of what a friend or loved one is talking or writing about.
- Do they avoid talking about future plans? Are they making references of wanting to escape or that they have nothing to live for? These could be cues that someone is feeling hopeless and may even be entertaining serious thoughts of self-harm.
If you notice these types of behaviors, Dr. Monalisa Tailor says to talk to your loved one with a kind and comforting tone. Let them know you are feeling concerned about them suggest they speak with a healthcare professional.
If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis or having thoughts of suicide, go to an emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness site, nami.org, for additional resources.