How many times have you asked yourself, “why is this year unlike any other year?!!” while you suit up and put your mask on, or turn on your computer for just one more zoom meeting? Covid-19 has changed the way we meet, greet, and interact with the world.
Now, we don’t run around hugging our friends or go to the gym, travel freely across the world, or attend in-person meetings. The spread of the virus which recently hit yet another record-breaking statistic, continues to spread with a vengeance, while families and children are mask and social distancing weary.
We are also amid a pandemic of alcohol and other drug use, with consumption rates 3-4 times higher than previous years. Mental Health issues have also spiked, including depression and anxiety. Unrest about social injustice is at a level we haven’t seen in the US in generations. PTSD, death by suicide, or thoughts of suicide, have increased. Plus, severe interpersonal loss associated with Covid-19, along with social disruption, is overwhelming the way families are coping today.
Four Truths to Bear in Mind During These Times
- We are living in a collective trauma bubble – Sadly, we cannot escape the vicissitudes of living in the midst of a global pandemic and racial injustice.
- People are not sleeping well – According to University of California Davis, increased levels of stress or anxiety, especially with the constant COVID-19 news cycle, can cause your brain to continuously keep you alert, making it difficult to fall asleep or creating more intense dreams. https://health.ucdavis.edu/health-news/newsroom/covid-19-is-wrecking-our-sleep-with-coronasomnia–tips-to-fight-back-/2020/09
- Holidays and holiday parties will be different – Even in the best of times, holidays can be challenging. Going home, or visiting with relatives that are not your favorite, is hard at any time. Old memories are dished up alongside all the dressing and dessert. Likewise, celebrating the first holiday after losing a loved one has its own set of trials and tribulations. There are so many triggers to navigate, and deciding how to celebrate someone is crucial. As such, grief takes on a new meaning during the holidays.
- Navigating recovery in any year is full of speed bumps – If you come from a family of drinkers, and that was your drug of choice, watching alcohol undulate before your eyes is stressful. Create a safety plan or be forthright with relatives, and let them know you prefer an alcohol-free event.
Over the years, in both my personal and professional experience, I have found some wonderful tips that ease the stress of the season.
Seven Tips to Plan for the Holiday Season
1. Set your intention to enjoy the holidays as much as possible – By making a conscious decision to open yourself to “true well-being,” you will be more likely to savor those uplifting moments. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel says by setting positive intentions, you set your brain to be open to positive experiences. Research by psychologist Barbara Friedman also shows that when we allow ourselves to feel positive emotions, we open ourselves to more positive experiences. As Yale researcher and teacher- Laurie Santos has demonstrated during COVID-19, her course on The Psychology of Happiness offered online has been record breaking! People want to learn how to retrain their brains for optimism and happiness in these tumultuous times
2. Savor the good times – Neuropsychologist, Rock Hansen talks about “savoring the good.” In other words, when something particularly wonderful happens, let it sit with you for 30 seconds. He calls this, “taking in the good” as we experience these emotions all over our body. Neuroscience has further shown that the longer we hold on to a good experience, the more neural connections we have in our brain, and the stronger that memory becomes.
3. Spending and gift giving do not necessarily equate happiness – So often during the holiday season, we want to buy and buy. During COVID-19, our shopping patterns have changed: lipstick sales are down, while mascara, coffee and cleaning supplies are up. Online shopping is skyrocketing, along with take-out foods and home deliveries. JP Morgan reports on the changes in consumer spending, “The pandemic has pushed more shoppers online, with e-commerce now accounting for 16.1% of all U.S. sales, up from 11.8% in the first quarter and this trend is likely to stick, even as brick-and-mortar stores open their doors again.”
While spending is up, the Wall Street Journal Reports that unemployment is also high. Taking care of oneself during holidays mean quite simply- do not overspend. Make a list of gifts you want to buy, or attempt to cut the spending by 25%.
4. Hit pause, take a break and then regain your focus – Self-care is important. If you are feeling overwhelmed by life, then let’s hit the pause button and take a few big breaths. Enjoy a cup of tea, a hot shower or bath. Try to go out in the fresh air and exercise, or, just slow down and put the computer away and just take a break. The “Nap Ministry” founded in 2016 by Tricia Hersey, talks about reimagining rest as an ethos of slowing down.
Here are some suggestions that can help all of us slow down now and at holiday time:
- Close your eyes for 10 minutes
- Take a long silent shower
- Meditate on a couch for 20 minutes
- Sip tea before bed in the dark
- Slow dance with yourself
- Take a 20-minute timed nap
- Play a musical instrument or sing
- Deep listening to a full music album
- Participate in a sound Bath
- Do not immediately responding to texts and emails
- Take a social media break
5. Practice gratitude – The researcher Robert Emmons has demonstrated that when we practice a daily routine of gratitude, we change our brain chemistry. It’s a powerful practice to consciously reflect on what you are grateful for each day in your life. In a study by the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, people who thought they were depressed or sad were invited to write down the good things that happened each day for 15 days. At the end of this experiment, 94% of subjects reported a decrease in depression, and 92% said that their happiness increased. In a 12-Step program, it is often recommended that as part of a morning and evening ritual, you write down at least 3 things you are grateful for, and share them along with mindful meditation.
6. Practice generosity or being of service – Being of service goes a long way. Saying thank you to the grocery clerk, helping someone with their packages, opening a car door, moving aside to let someone pass, or just smiling with your eyes are simple ways to do this. Neuroscience research shows that performing an altruistic act lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as food and sex. Being generous without any expectation in return can make someone feel wonderful. I like to call that thanking outside the box. What random acts of generosity have you done lately, or could you add to your holidays this year?
7. Play and have fun – Our world stopped in March when we learned we were hit by a virus we could not see, could not control, and could not stop. We have experienced friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, and strangers alike taken hostage by the pandemic and by racial injustice. Try to remember what it was like when you were a kid during the holidays. Be around young children if you can. You can share their enthusiasm, delight and wonder once more. Sing or dance (I know I am not good at either, yet it’s worth a shot). Many researchers have proven that play is crucial to well-being, and even the psychanalyst Carl Jung knew the power of the sand box. Happiness is contagious; if you are happy, more likely than not, those around you will pick that up.
In thinking about the holidays this year, whatever you celebrate and wherever you are, may you find joy in the little things, celebrate your health and that of your loved ones. May you find time to sing in the rain, howl at the moon, make snow angels in the snow, laugh at a silly joke and practice random kindness!
Dr. Louise Stanger is a preeminent clinician interventionist and thought leader in the behavioral health and addiction treatments industry. Her book Falling Up: A Memoir of Renewal recounts her travails growing up in a substance abuse family and forging her unique career path. The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions: A Collective Strategy, (2018) Rutledge is the first academic book in the U.S. about the invitational intervention process. It has been adopted at graduate schools across the country and is also available on Amazon.
Her new book Addiction in The Family: Helping Families Navigate Challenges, Emotions and Recovery, Callisto Media, Rockridge Press is available on Amazon.