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How to handle holiday stress during the pandemic

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 11/7/2020 By Aidin Vaziri

The holidays can be a perilous time for our mental health even without a deadly pandemic.

The weeks ahead are fraught with stress, including managing difficult family conversations, dealing with finances, and contemplating travel plans. But as coronavirus cases continue to spike at alarming rates around many parts of the country, and people are forced to reconsider long-standing traditions, depression and anxiety are also on the rise.

“The holidays are very important at a time when so much of our social lives have been disrupted,” said Dr. David Spiegel, director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health.

Zairha Rivera of Redwood City was planning to travel with her parents to spend Christmas with their extended family in Puerto Rico, but decided to wait until next year.

“Because of the coronavirus, we felt like it was too much risk,” Rivera said. “It’s very difficult, especially because my mother’s birthday is on New Year’s Eve.”

How do we make it through an already difficult time of the year when many of the measures we have to take to slow the spread of the virus — including sheltering in place and social distancing — exacerbate feelings of isolation and grief?

“Mentally prepare yourself that it's going to be different this year,” said Dr. Mercedes Kwiatkowski, a psychiatrist at the Sutter Bay Medical Foundation.

Here are some tips from the experts to help you cope with the stress of the holidays.

Set realistic expectations. While making plans for the holidays, understand that you will have to be flexible. There are several factors out of your control going into the holiday season in 2020, including coronavirus travel restrictions and public safety mandates that put limits on gatherings.

“Feeling distraught is normal,” Spiegel said. “But there are things you can do to make the most of the holidays but not by unduly endangering yourself.”

Visiting family members is not advisable this year, so think of ways you can celebrate at home or virtually.

“The best thing to do is stay distant and connect virtually,” said Dr. George Han, deputy health officer of Santa Clara County.

The experts suggest exercising psychological flexibility to help you regulate your emotions: step back and shift your perspective when things do not go the way you expect.

“The definition of this year is uncertainty,” Kwiatkowski said. “Be prepared for anything.”

Practice self-care. Tending to your most basic needs will help put you in a better headspace to weather the emotional tumult of the holiday season.

Sleep well, eat and get plenty of exercise.

“Having a routine is important,” Kwiatkowski said. “Get in the shower even if you don't feel like getting in the shower. Put a little effort into your appearance. Get outside and go for a walk to clear your head.”

A recent study found that the COVID-19 pandemic has tripled the rate of depression in all demographic groups in the United States, with 27.8% of adults reporting symptoms, in contrast with 8.5% before.

Factoring in the stress of the holidays could amplify those feelings.

“If you're vulnerable to depression, it could get worse now,” Spiegel said.

Keep things in perspective. We are usually stressed about the holidays because there is too much to do, from buying gifts and catching matinees of “The Nutcracker” to attending office parties and catching up with old friends at home.

This year we have nothing to do. It’s OK to lament the loss, but do not let it stifle you.

“We are allowed to give ourselves space and grace to grieve,” Kwiatkowski said. “Put a time limit on that. Say, ‘I'm going to allow myself to feel this sadness for 30 minutes,’ and then think, ‘OK, what can I do differently?’”

Use your time constructively to find new ways to celebrate and spend time with loved ones.

“We just had a practice run of that with Halloween,” Kwiatkowski said. “I was really sad about it for my kids, but we came up with a lot of new traditions. Normally, we're very busy and now we may have time to do more thoughtful things.”

Spiegel said it helps to take a broader view. Realize that other people also have to change their plans. Try to look past the pandemic to when things may go back to normal.

“It helps put it in perspective to know you are not the only one and we're all in this together,” Spiegel said. “It's also a reminder not to take it for granted. Hopefully, next year we will savor it because we didn't have it this year.”

Embrace your feelings. Some family members and friends may feel sad or upset about your change of plans, requiring you to not only find a way to manage your emotions but theirs, as well.

“The main thing is to acknowledge it,” said Spiegel. “Feelings are there for a reason. Often, we would rather feel mad than sad so we pick fights. You don't want to do that. You want to share the feeling of disappointment and let them know if you can't be together, you can still be virtually together. Get away from the all-or-nothing feeling.”

Even though it may lead to some difficult conversations, make decisions that are best for you and your family without feeling guilty about it.

“Be intentional. Set boundaries. Set a time limit that doesn’t give others time to respond or poke holes into your reasoning,” said Kwiatkowski. “That way they can have their time to process it.”

She recommends taking lots of deep breaths and practicing mindfulness through any difficult moments.

A trick she learned from her kids is to hold up a hand, trace your fingers with your eyes, take a deep breath as you work your way up a digit and out as you come down.

Spiegel also developed a free hypnotherapy program you can use via Alexa. Reveri Health offers mini sessions guided by your voice commands, providing exercises to help with a variety of issues, including stress, insomnia and loneliness.

Know when to ask for help. There are a lot of things to be sad and worried about right now, and many of us recognize that the situation will pass. But if you have trouble engaging in routine activities like getting out of bed in the morning, getting dressed, or connecting with friends and family members, then it might be time to seek help.

“If people start thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ or, ‘Why am I alive?’ Those are things I consider red flags,” said Kwiatkowski.

If you are having thoughts of harming yourself, tell someone right away.

Aidin Vaziri is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email:


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