We spoke with Traci Bank Cohen, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and Co-Founder of Westside Psych, to get her tips on navigating the myriad of issues we are facing headed into the holidays.
What are some tips we can give our NOW readers on how to manage the holidays this year?
Knowing we will be limited in travel, as well as the ability to physically connect with others in the way we have known, I strongly encourage people to manage their expectations and more importantly, focus on what the spirit of the holiday season represents this year. While there are usually parties and gift exchanges, what seems more meaningful is emotional connection with others. This can be done by expressing thoughtful sentiments to friends and family over FaceTime, texts, emails, and/or sending cards; perhaps it’s dropping off a warm meal to an elderly neighbor, or just carving out special time with your friends/pod to create new memories.
Can you offer some suggestions for people who are alone and feeling disconnected from family?
If you are feeling disconnected from friends and family during the holidays it can be incredibly challenging. Feelings of isolation and loneliness are painful, especially if you’re seeing others who may be surrounded by their loved ones. Obviously technology has made it easier to virtually join in on festivities and I do think that goes a long way – just being able to see the faces of those you love and maybe even have a holiday dinner “together” can lift one’s spirits. I also think that if you’re unable to do this, or perhaps feel distant from family for other reasons, the holidays are a great time to volunteer. You can be with others who join in your mission, and experience a sense of purpose helping those who may need it. Connecting with strangers can be a very meaningful experience and certainly makes you realize how valuable all relationships are, not just intimate ones since we are such social beings.
I think it’s really important to also practice self-care and self-compassion during this time (and always). To speak kind and gently to yourself; to treat yourself as carefully as you would a friend. So if you aren’t able to physically be with others, this would be a good time to do something (or many things) for yourself. Whether that’s meditating, journaling, getting a massage, exercising, or exploring your own city solo, it’s important to also give back to yourself.
What tips do you suggest for people who have moved back home with parents, or families that have been working and schooling at home for 6 months and are reaching a point of exhaustion?
First, acknowledge that this is simply a difficult and/or uncomfortable situation. Allow yourself to feel whatever feelings are coming up for you and try to process them with a therapist, friend, or by journaling; this can be cathartic and prevent ineffective communication approaches such as aggressiveness or passive-aggressiveness. When you identify what it is that you’re feeling, and have space to work through it, you’re more likely to show up in a more authentic way.
Ask for space. If you are living at home, which can be destabilizing in a dynamic that had previously worked when you lived apart, it’s completely understandable and healthy to say, “Mom, dad, I love you but I need a few days to myself.” This will help to recalibrate and come back feeling less frustrated and more capable of handling your family.
Set a time for a family “meeting” to review what’s been going well and what hasn’t. See if you, as a family, can come up with a game plan for the next few months of things that you want to continue and/or change. Try to focus on some positive outcomes that have resulted due to this situation.
How do you establish boundaries and protocols if you are going to see people for the holidays but want to stay safe or ask them to get tested or wear masks to dinner?
Open and honest communication is key. There is a kind and respectful way of saying, “Thank you for the invitation, but I am continuing to practice social distancing. I will be there in spirit. Hopefully next year we can be together.” You can also ask to see photos from the event or FaceTime in while it’s happening and participate virtually.
If you want someone to get tested or mask-up, the same principle applies. I think there is a fear that you will offend someone by making this request or that you don’t “trust” that they COVID-free. However, what’s more important than potentially hurting someone’s feelings, is your well-being.
What are your general mental health guidelines for managing what is normally considered to be a difficult time of year for people who struggle with anxiety?
The holiday season, pandemic or not, brings up a lot for a lot of people. It’s not always the “happiest time of the year” for everyone and it’s important to remember that if this applies to you, you’re not alone. Knowing that there are others who may have an ambivalent relationship to the holidays is important – sharing that experience with other people can help to normalize this.
Gratitude can be a powerful antidote to depression and anxiety. By acknowledging what you do have, rather than what you don’t, you’re able to put important life aspects into perspective. I would suggest starting with a small goal of writing down 1-3 parts of your life that you are grateful for daily – this could be your health, a relationship, or simply that you are here, breathing, and taking it one day at a time.
Ask for help. There are so many ways to do this, but first and foremost, consider speaking with a therapist. It’s really important to have your own space, consistently, in which you dedicate to your own healing. If that’s not an available resource for you, then confide in a friend whom you trust, a family member, or mentor. Remember, you do not have to do this life alone.