This is an installment in our 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 story.
And just like that, it’s holiday season.
As we celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and other holidays for the second time during a pandemic, the stakes are different: Last year, much of the country was unvaccinated, relegating most to stay grounded and sit out big holiday gatherings and traditions. But this year, the advent of widely available vaccines has allowed the country to reopen and stage a return to holidays that may resemble those of “before times.”
As joyful as it is for some to be reunited with far-flung family or friends, the creep toward festivity can be fraught with emotional minefields. Some may be grieving loved ones; others may be experiencing a sense of loss about milestones that have not been reached or time that has been lost over the past two years.
The stateside arrival of the omicron variant also heightens the stakes. Travel plans, parties and gatherings are on notice, yet again, for another coronavirus wave.
The best way to get through a season rife with reminders of grief may be to reframe the way we consider it, experts say. It’s also helpful to approach a season of emotional whiplash with some intention and planning.
We spoke to experts on how best to navigate the holidays, especially if you’re dealing with grief, numbness or burnout. Here’s what they had to say.
You can’t escape grief — it will hit you when it’s going to hit, experts say, and the holidays can bring powerful reminders. But instead of hoping to avoid it, there may be value in embracing it.
“Grief is an experience that demands to be felt, and offering it some room doesn’t negate that you can also experience joyfulness or peace in small moments,” said Ayanna Abrams, a clinical psychologist and founder of Ascension Behavioral Health in Atlanta.
All of the experts we spoke to agreed that avoiding grief is impossible — but what’s more, trying to avoid it can damage our ability to feel joy. For Barbara Davis, executive minister at First Presbyterian Church in New York City, nostalgia and grief “can be tools to move us forward, if we think about them in different ways.”
Memories of loved ones, or of past “normal” or more celebratory holidays, can be powerful guides on how to live in the present, she said, if we acknowledge them but don’t fall into the trap of trying to rigidly re-create them. The practice of “traditioning” — paying homage to memories while creating new ones and addressing the present — can aid in living with grief in the new normal.
Abrams also recommends allowing grief to be real without placing “rules” around it. “Think less about taking away what doesn’t feel good and more about what you can add that feels warm, safe, inviting, intimate,” she said.
Some examples might be calling up good memories, reading or watching things that feel inspiring, or talking to someone you like for 10 minutes on the phone or via video chat.
“It’s hard, because what’s needed to move through these moments are the opposite of what you feel like doing — but the reward can be pretty significant,” Abrams said. “Small moments during big emotional seasons really matter, sometimes more than trying to create big moments because it’s the holiday.”
There’s a certain amount of numbness that we may all be experiencing right about now, experts say. It may feel daunting to schedule joyful activities or events, but it’s a way to treat anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure, a hallmark symptom of depression, according to Natalie Dattilo, a clinical psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who teaches at Harvard Medical School.
“The goal is to basically get the brain juices flowing again and to activate the pleasure centers of the brain, on purpose,” Dattilo said, referring to behavioral activation, an evidence-based treatment for depression. “We usually reserve feeling good as a reward or something that just sort of happens. But scheduling time for having fun, making it a priority, is actually really critical for your mental health.”
In moments when it’s difficult to recognize joy, Dattilo recommends going back to the five senses.
“Look around at things,” she said, “and ask yourself: Do I like this? Which of these do I like more? Do I like this color or not? You could look at art or listen to music. Do a taste test. Really what you’re doing is stimulating the senses, which is a pathway to pleasure.”
Burnout is real and persistent. Taking time off is not a solution that is available to everyone, and its long-term efficacy isn’t guaranteed.
Fortunately, experts say, there are still ways to exercise agency that may help.
According to Abrams, burnout revolves around how connected you feel to others, as well as “what you’re intentionally saying yes to in your life.”
One method to ameliorate burnout is to choose things that make you feel good, even if you are tired or drained.
Abrams cautions against watching sad, sappy movies or listening to sad music during this season. She also recommends bringing bright scents into your home that can activate energy — peppermint, citrus or wild orange. Getting dressed in “outside” clothes whether or not you are leaving the house can also help — as can actually leaving the house.
“Yes, it’s cold, but this can feel activating in short bursts, and you’ll catch some sun, hopefully,” she said.
“Isolation significantly increases during this time of year,” Abrams added, “so creating some experiences where you feel more connected to yourself and to others is imperative.” And this doesn’t have to be in person; being with people online can also help.
Emily Myers, a D.C.-based research analyst, keeps multiple lists and a journal on the ready to counter states of burnout and find joy. She adds things she’s sad that she has missed out on to her “My Pandemic Losses” list and stressful things to her “Currently Stressing Me Out” list. That helps her store intrusive thoughts elsewhere and “enhance my ability to focus on something more productive, comfortable or meaningful,” she said.
But she also keeps her “Things That Help Me Have a Good Day” list to keep her self-care in check.
The items on that list are simple — “reading in bed in the morning, having tea, Swiffering the floor really quick in the morning, wearing earrings, having extra-cozy socks in my bedside drawer to sleep in.”