Are Americans Ready to Go Back Home for the Holidays?

For this edition of the Verywell Mind Mental Health Tracker, we discuss the concerns facing Americans as we enter the holiday season.

To find out what previous surveys said about the state of mental health in the U.S., check out our previous releases.

As the holiday season approaches, there is a lot for Americans to be excited about. The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for kids aged 5 through 11. Booster shots are shoring up the immune defenses of vaccinated adults. The Delta wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen from its late-summer highs. Sporting events are reaching full capacity. Marvel movies are coming out again. In short, things are starting to feel a bit more comfortable, if not entirely normal.

According to the latest data from the Verywell Mind Mental Health Tracker, this slow return to normalcy has manifested in excitement and tension over one of the core components of our lives as human beings: family.

For many, the coming holidays will be the first chance to enjoy a large, in-person family gathering in two years. The first time to hold a new baby, celebrate an engagement, and—yes—argue, fight, and embarrass ourselves after one too many egg nogs.

Americans are excited to be together again, but the process won't be stress-free. In many cases, COVID-related worries are playing a major role in how people are feeling about what is normally a time of celebration. Over two-thirds (68%) of Americans expect the holidays to go well, but that leaves 32% who think it won't.

Those who have lost their home, lost a job, or lost a loved one during the pandemic are 35%, 20%, and 23% less likely to expect things to go well with family over the holidays, respectively. While the support of loved ones will help many, for others the holidays may serve as a reminder of how things have changed for the worse, and of the things that COVID-19 has taken away forever.

Navigating the Usual (and Unusual) Holiday Stressors

Even in the pre-COVID world, few of us would say the holidays are free of complications. Between traveling long distances, disrupting our routines, rehashing old squabbles, planning menus, spending money, and more, the holidays can be a lot to handle.

illustration of holiday concerns

Verywell / Bailey Mariner & Joshua Seong

This year, 75% of Americans have some concerns around the holiday season. The most common concern is financial—a stressor we have been tracking for months. Our latest survey showed that 37% of people are worried about holiday expenses, even more than the percentage of people who reported being afraid of getting sick (30%).

Between vaccines and improved treatments, we seem to have more confidence in our COVID-fighting methods than in our ability to overcome the financial strain that has affected millions since the pandemic began.

Other COVID-adjacent concerns continue to linger as well. Many people are worried about shipping delays or supply shortages (28%), managing their mental health (26%) or managing the mental health of a loved one (19%), and travel restrictions (22%).

It's also important to mention those who experience holiday stress specifically because they may not have a family gathering to attend at all. Loneliness during the holidays is a concern for 21% of Americans.

While the worst of the pandemic may be over, we can still see how it affects so many different areas of our lives that we may not have been worried about before.

Are American Families Gearing Up for a Fight?

It shouldn't surprise anyone that 69% of Americans come into conflict with loved ones during the holidays. Family members are often the people we know best, and who know us best. A large family dynamic can be an intricate web of personality clashes, complicated histories, old grudges, and differences in opinion.

Along with the usual family squabbles, we're living in a time of heightened political antagonism, where a disagreement may be seen by some as a moral failing rather than an opposing view. This is reflected in the topics that Americans say they expect to cause conflict over the holidays:

  • COVID-19 pandemic (39% of Americans who anticipate conflict)
  • Vaccines (32%)
  • Politics (28%)
  • The economy (25%)
  • Conspiracy theories (19%)
  • Climate change (18%)

Anti-vaccine sentiment has become a wedge that may be hard to avoid at large family gatherings this holiday season. In a large enough family, chances are that some members are unvaccinated. If your family is asking for everyone to be vaccinated in order to attend a holiday gathering, it's easy to imagine complications arising if some individuals feel unwelcome while others feel unsafe.

The Community Effect of Mental Health Strain

Yes, the holidays can and will be a time of joy for many people. That said, the stress of the last two years continues to take its toll on Americans, and the holidays may exacerbate these issues for some.

If we're worried about our family members, the holidays may serve as a reminder of these struggles. Between increased susceptibility to the virus and the staggering effects of isolation, the pandemic has been especially difficult on older Americans.

It will be difficult for many to realize that the parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents we remember from the last big family gathering may have been impacted in ways we weren't able to observe directly in the last two years.

Strategies for a Safe and Happy Holiday Season

COVID-19 has created a mental health crisis around the country, and has led to a lot of people thinking and talking about their mental health for the first time. This increased awareness and openness around mental health issues is undoubtedly positive, but it needs to be paired with self-care and, when necessary, treatment from a mental health professional.

And when it comes to the holidays, there are a number of strategies you can take to manage some of the stressors you're expecting to face.

Cut Back on Gifts

If you're struggling to pay the bills or put food on the table, don't stretch for holiday gifts that may put you deeper in a hole. Know that your friends and family members care about you, and value your health and safety over any potential gift you might want to buy them.

Have an honest conversation with your loved ones, and remind them that simply being together again is more than enough of a gift. Not only will this help your finances, it will also help ease the usual stress that so many of us face when it comes to finding the perfect gift.

Have Tough Conversations Ahead of Time

If you're not hosting but are concerned about health protocols at any large gatherings, find out as soon as you can. And if you are hosting, be clear with your guests about your expectations. It may lead to some difficult conversations, especially with someone you care about, but if you're not allowing unvaccinated guests, make sure everyone knows that well in advance.

This will allow them time to make other plans or to get vaccinated if they so choose. Additionally, you might compromise and allow anyone to come if they can present a negative COVID test.

Set Boundaries

If you anticipate some stressful conversations around politics, for example, you may decide that it should be off-limits as a topic. There's nothing inherently wrong with spirited disagreement, but if everyone is dug in on their views and has made it clear they won't be swayed by any argument, then there are far more productive ways to spend your holidays together. That means eating good food, catching up on the past two years, and trying to regain some sense of normalcy.

Be Open, Honest, and Empathetic

A lot of Americans have really struggled during the pandemic. There's a good chance that's true of multiple people you'll see over the holidays. Don't be afraid to open up to your loved ones. Let them in on some of your own struggles, and listen to them as they share theirs.

Talk about the different self-care strategies you've employed to get through this difficult time, whether it is meditation, exercise, yoga, or learning a new skill. Maybe you'll pick up a few new ideas for your own mental health.

Whatever strategy you are using to cope with mental health stressors this holiday season, make sure it is one you can do safely, one that fulfills your needs and makes you feel better, and is something simple that you can repeat and maintain as needed, for as long as it's needed.

Methodology

The Verywell Mind Mental Health Tracker is an ongoing measurement of Americans’ attitudes and behaviors around their mental health. The survey is fielded online, beginning April 28, 2021, to 4,000 adults living in the U.S. The total sample matches U.S. Census estimates for age, gender, race/ethnicity, and region.

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