This is the first installment in our new series, Happier Holidays, a guide to navigating the mental, financial and interpersonal difficulties the holidays can bring. Follow along each week to read a new installment.
This year, many Americans are returning to pre-pandemic guest lists for their holiday celebrations: Nearly two-thirds of people say they’re planning to spend Thanksgiving with as many people as before covid-19, or more, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.
A return to normalcy may be welcome for many people: It’s an opportunity to get together with loved ones and celebrate amid the pandemic’s ongoing difficulty. But for some, it’s cause for additional worry. Even in “normal times,” experts say the high expectations and loneliness of the holidays can elevate stress and worsen existing mental health conditions.
This year, that stress is naturally heightened by the pandemic. Despite the continued challenges (and dangers) of the pandemic, a majority of Americans polled — 64 percent — said they won’t ask about their guests’ vaccination status. As many people navigate these vaccine disparities, they’re also anticipating a return to large groups, seeing distant family for the first time in years, or facing the pressure to host a perfect gathering after a year on hold.
“As stressful as the pandemic was for a lot of people, [last year] was the first holiday in a long time they could just sort of stay put and not have to do too much,” said Candace Good, a psychiatrist and author who specializes in anxiety. “So this year, there’s a lot of expectations.”
Women are the ones who disproportionately deal with these difficulties: Forty-four percent of women report higher stress levels over the holidays, compared with just 31 percent of men. This is because the emotional and domestic labor of making holiday magic often falls on women — sometimes at a high cost.
This stress can also be underscored for people occupying marginalized identities, said Akeera Peterkin, a Connecticut-based therapist. Queer people may be navigating their first holiday after coming out, or be forced to re-closet themselves around unaccepting family members. Immigrants may be faced with the pressure to assimilate to American traditions, and some may be navigating the disproportionate financial burden of the pandemic.
Here are four strategies from experts for making time for self-care and managing stress this Thanksgiving, no matter how you’re spending the holiday.
All three of the experts we spoke to stressed the importance of planning ahead when it comes to maintaining your mental health through the holidays. You may think you’ll be able to keep your cool in a heated or stressful moment, but that’s often when we’re least able to manage our emotions, according to Good.
Before that holiday anxiety sets in, take some time to sit with your thoughts, feelings and fears. D.C.-based therapist Laura Luna recommends asking yourself the following questions: What is too much for you? What is the point at which you’ll pull yourself away and take a break?
For example, if you know harmful diet talk is a trouble spot for you, make a plan for how you’ll step away if the conversation becomes triggering. Do you have an uncle that always gets under your skin at the dinner table? Plan a script ahead of a time so you’re more prepared to handle the situation if it becomes tense.
Many of our readers shared that they’re most nervous about navigating vaccination and other pandemic protocols this Thanksgiving. Good says that while it can be intimidating to set boundaries with family members over contentious issues, it’s important to honor your values.
“A lot of us are hesitant to set those limits because you don’t want to upset people or deal with their anger,” she says. “But you have a right to your opinion and maintaining your safety.”
Peterkin says that because it can be so difficult, it’s important to give yourself permission to set a boundary in the first place. She puts it this way: Instead of seeing a boundary as telling someone “no,” reframe it as “saying yes to yourself.”
“Boundaries are an expression of love for ourselves,” they say. “And it’s signaling to others that we love them enough to know limits.”
Luna recommends offering an alternative: Maybe your hard boundary is that you won’t attend a gathering in person. Instead, you might organize a video call. If you’re anxious about being in a group setting for too long, you might say in advance you’re stopping by for only a short time.
When it comes to the domestic responsibilities of holidays, setting a boundary might involve asking for guests to bring side dishes, or saying you can host this year but not the next. It may also involve setting a financial budget for the amount you’re willing — and able — to spend on the festivities.
And for queer people who came out during the pandemic, it may be important to set a boundary about using your or your partner’s correct pronouns or name, says Peterkin.
“The worst thing we can do is completely disrespect and disregard our bodies, especially for those who are marginalized,” says Peterkin. “We live in a society that often disregards and disrespects us, so the one thing that we can do for ourselves is affirm who we are.”
Setting the boundary is also just the first step. It’s important not only to set these boundaries, says Luna, but to stick to them, even when others push back. If we don’t, it can create burnout.
“We keep saying ‘Yes,’ or ‘Okay, fine,’ but then we just feel resentful and angry,” Luna said. “It can come out internally as depression as anxiety, or externally as aggression, anger or passive aggressiveness.”
One of the things that makes the holidays so difficult, says Good, is they shake up our daily routines — something that may have become deeply entrenched for many during the pandemic. This disruption can be especially difficult after such a period of stagnancy.
Good suggests focusing on a short-term project or habit to keep you on track, like setting a goal to keep a gratitude journal every day. Another tactic is to deliberately schedule time for self-care before the holiday stress sets in. Set a timer and check in with yourself. If you’re in a crowded holiday party, find space to be alone and practice deep breathing.
“If you don’t schedule a time for it, it’s not going to happen,” says Good.
Because the term “self-care” is often misused, Peterkin references the words of Audre Lorde, the Black lesbian writer who popularized the term as an act of political resistance: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.”
“Essentially self-care just really means taking care of ourselves to be more sustainable — to survive for a longer period of time,” Peterkin adds.
Luna points out that parents, in particular, often put self-care on the back burner during the holidays. She suggests going on a drive or a walk, listening to a favorite song or finding time to exercise (beyond just running after your kids).
If you’re a person who works on the holiday — or the hectic Black Friday that follows it — Luna stresses that carving out this time is even more necessary: “Even if you can only find 15 to 30 minutes to find your favorite lunch, get your favorite coffee to help you get through the day, schedule something that brings you joy that day,” she says.
Holidays — and life — rarely go exactly as planned, even in the best of times. And these, to put it mildly, are not the best of times. In the face of so much destabilization and upheaval, Good says it’s important to reset your expectation to have anything close to the perfect Thanksgiving.
A self-described perfectionist, Good says she used to think it meant she was lazy or didn’t care if she let go of the outcome of a situation and lowered her expectations. Now, she says relieving that pressure is essential to managing her mental health. Even though you may not be able to control a situation, she said, you can control your response to it.
“When you practice those things, you realize … you can really live with more contentment, even under the same stressful circumstances, because you’re making a choice about how you’re going to manage it,” she says.
Peterkin recommends exploring the possibility of new traditions with curiosity and excitement.
“Find a way to celebrate that difference: have some joy around it, and have some fun really tuning into learning who you are outside of these expectations,” Peterkin says.
This mind-set can be particularly important for those experiencing grief, they say. Even amid the devastation of celebrating a holiday without a loved one for the first time, Peterkin says there can be an opportunity for healing: “We know we heal in community,” they say.
Altogether, these small efforts are important. It may not seem significant to take five minutes to yourself during a stressful holiday party, but these intentional acts add up, says Good.
“These things that feel small, when you put them together, can make a huge difference,” she says.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Laura Luna is a psychologist. She is a clinical social worker and therapist.