COVID-19 Could Make Holiday Stress Worse Than Ever This Year

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Key Takeaways

  • Collective feelings surrounding the holidays this year vary widely, as the pandemic has affected everyone a little differently.
  • Mental health experts anticipate stress and other negative feelings to emerge or increase this holiday season, which is problematic since the holidays are already a stressful time of year.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still in full swing and the holiday season getting closer, we are witnessing a wide array of emotional reactions and preparations. For some, the holidays are a highly anticipated time of year.

Depending on the individual and their daily life, they can serve as a break from work and the regular day-to-day, or an opportunity to take a vacation. And many people utilize the holidays to spend time with extended family, especially if they live in different parts of the state or country.

But due to COVID-19 restrictions and potential health risks associated with public transportation, many have opted to stay home and are considering how to connect with loved ones from a distance. This change may be hard for many who look forward to this time of the year, especially for those with aging loved ones.

And for those who don't enjoy holiday festivities all that much to begin with, those negative emotions are further complicated by a global pandemic. "Most people have been under high levels of stress for most of the year. Not being able to celebrate the holidays in a traditional way might compound the stress and loneliness people are already feeling." Amy Morin, LCSW, editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind.

Compounding Feelings

Renee Exelbert, PhD, founding director of The Metamorphosis Center for Psychological and Physical Change, says that in a normal year, spending time with family could have major benefits. “The holidays typically give many of us a boost to our mental state, as we look forward to special family gatherings where we can all be together. 

"Spending time with our loved ones can help defend against feelings of loneliness and depression, particularly during this time period of greater social isolation when close connections are needed more than ever," she says.

However, the current health risks are complicating or even skewing our usual emotions towards these reunions. Exelbert notes that loved ones who are typically a place of comfort for people may now be viewed as potentially dangerous, which can lead to increased stress and even harm your immunity. 

"Yet, the inability to celebrate meaningful family traditions this year may push some individuals into a more depressed state, feeling as though their ability to cope with COVID-19 has been surpassed," she says.

Social Altruism

Social altruism, or the moral practice of concern for the wellbeing and happiness of other people, can also play into the challenging emotions people are experiencing this holiday season.

This concern for other humans is completely natural, but can become an issue when we may not be equipped to protect people in the way we’d like. “The practice of social altruism, or the tendency to see the needs of others as more important than your own, and the willingness to sacrifice for others, takes on a whole new meaning when one’s behaviors and choices could impact family members so adversely," Exelbert says.

Complicated Family Dynamics

For others, the most wonderful time of year might bring up some not so wonderful feelings. Family dynamics can make gatherings complicated, or potentially bring about negative memories. “For some, the holiday season can be marked with a sense of loneliness and loss for family members who are no longer living or who are estranged," says Exelbert.

It's also a time where we might feel tremendous pressure to have the ideal family, creating unrealistic expectations that might deepen feelings of isolation and disconnection, she says.

Throw in a global pandemic and tensions get worse. Many people are experiencing ongoing pressure to spend the holidays with family, regardless of public health risks, and this is putting undue stress on relationships. Exelbert explains, “Complicated family dynamics may result in individuals feeling pressure to either host or attend holiday gatherings, which may directly conflict with their personal feelings of choice or safety."

Renee Exelbert, PhD

For those individuals who experience more strained relationships with family members, their ambivalent feelings may culminate in a greater sense of resentment or anger, as they might not want to share in the holidays to begin with and are now experiencing the added stress of the threat of illness.

— Renee Exelbert, PhD

Exelbert says these concerns can lead to serious disruptions to your normal mental health functioning and have stress-related health consequences.

"For those individuals who experience more strained relationships with family members, their ambivalent feelings may culminate in a greater sense of resentment or anger, as they might not want to share in the holidays to begin with and are now experiencing the added stress of the threat of illness. These internalized feelings can also result in both mental and physical health problems," she says.

Lack of Control 

A lack of control over life circumstances is commonly difficult for people. Because COVID-19’s novelty by definition rids us of the ability to make plans around it, it is clear why we have seen spikes of anxiety and depression since the onset of the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought up many feelings related to lack of control, anxiety, and uncertainty. Add to that the stress some experience in navigating their relationships with family, and you have a perfect storm,” says Exelbert.

How Can We Combat These Feelings?

Control Things Within Your Power 

While there is still a lot we do not know about the virus, we do know that proper hygiene is effective in mitigating illness. A great way to take control of your health is to be vigilant when it comes to safety protocols, including social distancing, wearing a mask, and frequent hand washing. “This can help ameliorate their anxiety, as they are doing all they can to minimize their risk." says Exelbert.

Communication Is Key

If you do decide to get together with some family members, do your best to be as specific as possible about your concerns regarding the pandemic. Establish guidelines and make sure everyone in attendance is aware of the health and safety expectations you've put in place.

Exelbert suggests possibilities like asking guests to quarantine for a certain time period before coming, doing temperature checks, and following mask and social distancing guidelines upon arrival. "If the decision is made to attend an event, do your best to follow all guidelines and look out for the safety of those involved,” she says.

Understand That You Cannot Control Others

It is normal to want your loved ones to take care of themselves, but the definition of safety might look a bit different for each of you. “When you open yourself up to social events that include many people, you are not always certain of the health protocols they have followed, and your sense of control diminishes.

"Combining this prolonged stress and anxiety for the past several months with potential complicated familial relationships, and you are likely to get tension-filled holiday season." says Exelbert.

Once you have expressed your feelings and concerns, it is up to each of you to make decisions that you feel are best. It can be difficult but prepare for the possibility that these decisions may not align this year.

Be Creative

If you decide to spend your holidays solo this year, there are ways to enjoy time with relatives even if you're not physically in the same place, “Suggest ways that you can still stay connected, such as doing a FaceTime or Zoom call during your celebration, or delivering a special meal ahead of time to be included in their special event.” says Exelbert.

What This Means For You

While increased stress during this holidays this year is likely, there are options for combatting these feelings and the factors that induce them. Focus on the things that you can control, including your own hygiene and plans that make you feel safest.

If you do not feel safe traveling, take advantage of the many virtual options that are currently at our disposal and come up with some creative ways to engage with your loved ones that live in different areas.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.