• Elizabeth Jenkins

How to Stay Sane During a Pandemic Holiday Season

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

By Dr. Elizabeth Jenkins

November 16, 2020

The cooler weather has arrived, and it looks like COVID-19 will be an unwelcome guest at many tables this holiday season. This year has passed in a chronic state of waiting…to see family, for a vaccine, for the results of that last COVID test... the list continues. Your entire life has likely changed: the way you work (or don’t), how you interact with friends and family members, and what you do for fun. Your income may have decreased; your children may be home; your office may be your dining room table. The bottom line is, we expected things to have improved already, and now the holidays are just around the corner.

A fall spike in COVID-19 infections was predicted for some time, and now it’s here. You may be wondering how you will muster the commitment to continue or tighten up preventive safeguards. Coronavirus burnout and pandemic fatigue are real and happening to most of us about now. The idea of tightening up precautions during the holidays may feel frankly depressing or even impossible, especially if you haven’t felt the impacts of COVID-19 directly in your life, but you have felt the effects of social distancing. Sustaining COVID precautions when the threat is not necessarily easy to see can be difficult at best.

At this point, we know what precautions to take: wear masks consistently, maintain a safe physical distance from others, opt for outside activities over inside, and wash hands frequently. The challenge is following through with these behaviors consistently, while maintaining our sense of sanity in the process.

As a clinical health psychologist and co-author of several books on motivation and well-being, I recognize that motivation, health, and happiness often seem just out of reach during stressful times. While this year’s events have likely taken a toll on how you feel, health and happiness are still possible, and the good news is that you don’t have to wait for COVID-19 to disappear to improve how you feel.

We know that how we feel often impacts what we do, but did you know that what you do can affect how you feel? While health and happiness may seem to be driven by luck, you may be surprised to find that the choices you make can profoundly impact your well-being. Consider the following tips for taking care of you during this holiday season:

1. Make self-care a priority.

Prioritizing self-care, including physical health, emotional well-being, and a sense of connection to others, has become even more critical during the pandemic. Completing a self-care checklist may help you identify new ways to take care of you while still maintaining COVID precautions.

There are various activities that can influence physical and emotional well-being. These include being mindful, practicing gratitude, sharing through acts of kindness, and expanding your empathy. The benefits of happiness do not stop with good feelings; happiness affects our physical health too. Studies have shown that being happier is associated with higher energy, a stronger immune system, better heart health, decreased stress levels, reduced pain, and longer life.

2. Consider what is important to you and make choices that will help you live a life consistent with your goals and values.

Staying motivated to follow through with an action is often easier if you identify why it is important to you. What are your reasons for wanting to engage in a specific behavior? For example, are you choosing to limit the number of guests at Thanksgiving dinner because you have vulnerable family members you want to protect? Sometimes, when a behavior requires extra work, we may opt for the “easier” choice rather than the choice that supports our longer-term goals. Remembering why an action is important and using your values as your guidepost for your choices can help you stick with behaviors, even when the choice is hard.

3. Remember that your feelings are simply information; they are neither “good” nor “bad.”

While some of your feelings like loneliness, disappointment, or grief may be painful, merely noticing your feelings rather than labeling them as “good” or “bad” can help you adjust to the changes in your life. Practice observing your thoughts and feelings as they occur, without judgment, much like you might notice cascading water if you were standing behind a waterfall. If you find yourself trying to control the experiences rather than just noticing them, notice that too and begin again. Remember, observing your thoughts and feelings without judgement is a practice, not a destination.

4. Choose some intentional activities to engage in.

You may want to feel good, but how? There is an old AA saying, “Fake it until you make it,” and it is excellent advice. The most effective fix for feeling down when “your get up and go has got up and went” is to get up and get going anyway. Rather than waiting for life to improve before making changes, consider making some changes first. In fact, there’s a lot of science out there that suggests that the variability in happiness from one person to another has less to do with life circumstances and more to do with actually engaging in activities that support happiness.

Are you worried about your motivation to follow through? Breaking it down into smaller, more manageable goals is a great way to start. Remember the advice on how to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

5. Consider counseling.

If you find that you are struggling to cope, feel overwhelmed by painful emotions, or find yourself turning to unhealthy ways of coping such as excessive drug or alcohol use, talk to someone who can provide support. If painful emotions interfere with your ability to function or if you begin to have thoughts of harming yourself or others, The National Suicide Hot Line is always available at (800) 273-8255.

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