With the festive season upon us, many are facing the reality that they may be spending the holidays apart from family and friends because of the pandemic. To help us prepare for a different kind of holiday this year, especially the isolation and loneliness, we spoke with Dr. Carlin Barnes and Dr. Marketa Wills, two Harvard-trained psychiatrists and the co-founders of Healthy Mind MDs, LLC.
Drs. Barnes and Wills discussed how to deal with your feelings about the holidays, ways to celebrate if you can’t be with your loved ones, and how to talk to family members who may not understand why you’re keeping your distance. Here are the 10 key tips they shared to cope with being alone this season.
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Accept that things are different this year
Don’t feel guilty about finding joy in the season
Remember this is temporary
Find other ways to celebrate with loved ones
Despite everything, the holidays are not cancelled; they just have to be celebrated differently. Even if you can’t physically be with your loved ones, there are still ways to connect with others and keep the spirit of the holidays alive. “Even though you're mourning, you still have an opportunity to engage and connect, and to create special memories,” Dr. Barnes conveyed.
If your family is in another city, have a family dinner together via video call, or if your loved ones are nearby, arrange a drive-by visit. Other things to consider are watching a movie virtually with friends and family, or rediscovering long, meaningful phone conversations. No matter how you decide to celebrate, be thoughtful and intentional. Added Dr. Barnes, “Acknowledge that this might be difficult to get through, but do the best that you can to enjoy yourself.”
Tell your family why you’re not celebrating with them in person
One of the most difficult things you may have to do this year is explaining to family why you’re choosing to stay away. “It’s a real thing, and people are going to be on the giving and receiving end of those messages,” Dr. Barnes shared. Dr. Wills added, “Those are tough conversations, and neither side feels great.”
Both doctors prescribed telling those people in advance and being very clear and thoughtful about the reasons you won’t be joining them. One way to phrase it, according to Dr. Barnes, is to say, “I'm not feeling comfortable celebrating in the traditional way for the sake of safety.” Be sensitive and empathetic to their feelings and let them know it’s not a rejection. Offer alternate ways to celebrate with them, like a socially distanced exchange of food or a drive-by visit. Most of all, be respectful of their feelings, ask that they respect your decision, and let them know that even though things are different this year, we can still say we celebrated as a family.
Incorporate self care into your plan
Despite the loss, be grateful for what you have
Consider adopting a pet
“One thing I’ve been telling people to do is get a pet,” Dr. Wills told us. “Pets have been a wonderful relief while getting through the uncertainty of the pandemic. For people who are living alone, it’s a great way to manage in a healthy way.”
Besides helping with loneliness, there are so many health benefits to adopting a pet, like reducing stress, anxiety, and depression and improving cardiovascular health. If you bring a dog into your life, it will give you more reasons to go outdoors for walks and fresh air every day.
Talk to a Professional
“For whatever reason, if getting through the holiday season is something that is so terrifically painful for you to bear, it's definitely worth reaching out and seeking professional help,” recommended Dr. Wills. “That’s what professional mental health specialists are there for.”
A mental health professional can help you process negative emotions, find solutions, and gain insight into why you may be experiencing these feelings. They can also help by cognitively restructuring your thoughts so you can move forward.
If you’ve never gone to therapy but you’re overwhelmed by the holiday season, consider seeking out that extra support. And if you already have a therapist, Dr. Wills emphasized the importance of checking in with them, even if you’re not experiencing any symptoms related to the holidays.