face mask hanging on a christmas tree

Photo from Pixabay

As we approach the 2020 holiday season, we look forward to connecting with family and friends we haven’t seen in this pandemic year, and enjoying some time off and a return to some of the traditions we’re used to. At the same time, we know it will be a December like none other, with a focus on social distancing and, for many, feelings of loss amidst the pandemic and related economic hard times.

Kris Hooks, a representative of Empathia, an employee assistance program, shared tips for making the best of the 2020 holidays in a Dec. 8 webinar open to the Cal State Fullerton community.

If you aren’t feeling joyous this holiday season, Hooks emphasizes that you’re not alone. “Holiday blues are real. They are different this year. They are industrial strength,” she says. “Even those who weren’t previously prone to anxiety or depression before COVID could have it now.”

Know the Challenges for the Holidays This Year

The holiday season can be a stressful time even in good years, but Hooks notes a particular set of stressors in 2020, foremost being minimizing the risk of COVID-19 in any family gatherings, concern for the physical and emotional well-being of others, social isolation, and a lack of quality time available with family and friends. And there’s always family conflict and financial issues, which can arise in any year, but may be more acute this time.

And Hooks encourages everyone to know the various signs and symptoms of stress, which can appear differently depending on the individual. These can be physical, such as headaches, upset stomach and fatigue. Or emotional, such as mood swings, anxiety attacks, fear, anger, numbness and feelings of helplessness. For others, it manifests cognitively, including difficulty concentrating, confusion and forgetfulness. Behavioral changes might include avoidance, withdrawal, comfort eating, overworking and substance abuse.

“A lot of energy can be wasted with looking back on negative emotions. And when looking forward, we can have fear or anxiety, and that drains us during our present moment,” says Hooks.

Avoiding maladaptive coping strategies – which of course include substance abuse but also more benign measures such as overuse of social media or binge shopping – is essential. And often your family, friends and colleagues are the first to spot negative trends.

“Those who struggle with escape behaviors aren’t usually the first ones seeking help, but the people around them see the issues,” says Hooks.

Kris Hooks

Kris Hooks

Practical Strategies for a Good 2020 Holiday

Of foremost importance is minimizing risk, but that can be challenging in today’s families, which are sometimes divided between those who are anxious about COVID-19, and some who downplay the danger.

“Other family members have to default to the level of concern of whoever has the most concern,” says Hooks. “At the same time, if your standards are different or higher than others, you can’t always expect them to do things the way you want them done.”

Hooks urges a combination of respect for others’ opinions, but also doing what’s right for you and your immediate family.

The holiday season is often an “all or nothing” time, in which revelers overindulge – whether that equates to waistlines or pocketbooks. For 2020, Hooks encourages incorporating healthy habits, including exercise, sleep, good diet and sensible finances, into the holiday celebration.

Can’t connect in person with friends or loved ones? There are digital alternatives, including apps such as Elfster, an online secret Santa generator that makes gift exchanges easier – and ensures you never draw your own name or that of your spouse.

The loss of some time-honored traditions is a good opportunity to develop new ones, such as writing letters, connecting by phone, having a game night (even virtually) or doing a gingerbread house competition.

2020 may be the most traumatic year in some of our lifetimes, but with every cloud comes silver linings. Have you connected with your spouse or children more because you’ve been working from home or less often? Have you used this time to develop a new hobby or renovate your house? Has the loss of normal routines made you better appreciate the things that really matter? It’s a great time to look at the positives of 2020. And that includes expressing gratitude to those who have been meaningful to you. Thank you cards were made for 2020!

Hard times often turn our thoughts to those less fortunate. If you are well enough off to help others this year, consider volunteering your time or money to those in need. That could include purchasing gifts for the less fortunate, helping out at a homeless shelter or food bank, or sending well wishes to the disabled or elderly.

The holiday season is more than shopping and activities. With so many of the traditional trappings stripped away, 2020 is a great time to connect with your core beliefs on what this time of year means, and to discover anew all the things you already have in your life.