UNT professors offer 9 tips for handling holiday blues, stress

Holidays can be stressful under normal circumstances. During 2020, stress and feelings of depression can be multiplied by a spike in COVID-19 cases, economic concerns and election stress, among many other factors.

University of North Texas College of Health and Public Service Rehabilitation and Health Services  Clinical Assistant Professor Rachita Sharma has suggestions for coping with holiday stress or the holiday blues in a year when nothing seems normal.

Be realistic The holiday season will undoubtedly look different this year. Do not expect it to be perfect or be the same as years past. Instead, prioritize what truly matters and set realistic expectations. If needed, give these pandemic holidays a new name (Pandolidays?) and allow yourself to recognize that they will look different than usual holidays. Gifts not mailed on time? Blame it on the Pandolidays! Turkey is overcooked and potatoes lumpy? Blame it on the Pandolidays! Decorations look a little sparse this year? Pandolidays!

Acknowledge your feelings Pandemic holidays will feel quite different when compared to the usual holiday season. Allow yourself to feel a range of emotions during this time, including fear, guilt, sadness, uncertainty or even apathy. There might be an empty spot or two at the holiday dinner table because of the loss of a loved one or their inability to be present because of travel restrictions. It is OK to allow yourself to feel these emotions and recognize them as a normal response toward the holidays this year. Don’t force yourself to be happy just because it is the holiday season.

Plan ahead and be flexible Flexibility and preplanning will be key to this holiday season. Your usual traditions might need to be adapted to meet the demands of the pandemic. Make new traditions this year or cherish some of the older, simpler ones that might have fallen by the wayside. While we are feeling the brunt of technology right now with working from home, video conferencing can be a great way to include family members or friends into celebrations that they might otherwise not be able to attend. If technology is not your cup of tea, then consider utilizing the postal service to send handwritten letters or cards to loved ones. If the gift you would like to order is sold out, get creative and use the extra time you have to hand-make a thoughtful gift instead. Your custom-made labor of love might be appreciated even more than a commercialized product.

Set aside differences Americans are more polarized than ever before, and this often extends to family members as well. Regardless of our values or beliefs, we have all experienced the negative impact of this pandemic on our lives. Try to set aside other differences, even just momentarily, and consciously choose to be present in the moment with your family by enjoying the natural warmth of the season and practicing gratitude for the time you have together. If you cannot agree on certain topics and other topics of conversation are hard to come by, consider volunteering for a social cause all of you can agree on. Adopt a family-in-need for Christmas and shop for items on their wish list; collect toys for a children’s hospital; or donate your skills, time or money to an agency that helps those impacted by the pandemic. There are many opportunities to give back.

Stick to a budget The pandemic has caused all of us to be spread thin in terms of responsibilities. You might have felt like a neglectful parent, an absent partner or an unavailable friend. Nonetheless, do not attempt to overcompensate by buying exceptionally lavish gifts or going overboard with your overall holiday spending. Nothing dulls the cheer of the holidays season faster than a long, looming credit card bill in January.

Learn to say no Learn to prioritize the “me” in “merry” this festive season. For many people, the holiday season means caring for and prioritizing others. However, you cannot pour from an empty cup. Consider setting boundaries and being assertive as needed. All of us are experiencing moral fatigue at this point of the pandemic. For months, we have had to think through the potential implications of many of our normal, everyday actions and decisions in a way we never had to before, because of how they could affect others. Give yourself some down time by learning to say “no” to some things instead of overwhelming yourself this season.

Don’t abandon healthy habits Think of yourself as a plant. You need water, fresh oxygen, healthy nutrients and some time to relax, now more than ever. Keep your body’s immunity strong by not letting your healthy habits slide away during the holidays. Keep your mental health strong by practicing gratitude on a daily basis and reaching out to loved ones.

Take a breather (Niksen!) Rest and relaxation are vital for all of us. Sometimes, simply sitting on a sofa and sipping hot chocolate with your favorite topping on a chilly day can be the relaxation you need. Allow yourself to engage in doing absolutely nothing at all. The Dutch even have a name for this intentional practice of doing nothing Niksen! If Niksen is not for you, then consider learning about and utilizing progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery or mindfulness to allow your mind a gentle way to return to this moment and embrace the spirit of the festive season.

Reach out ­ If you are unable to be with your family this year for the holidays, consider reaching out to friends, religious/spiritual communities or other social communities and participate in socially distant events. Schedule a few appointments with a therapist via telemental health if you need someone to listen nonjudgmentally to how you are feeling. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

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