December is normally a time of togetherness and celebration. But with COVID-19 cases surging again all over the world, this season will likely look very different, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is discouraging gatherings with people outside our own households.
So, how do you reconcile the desire for holiday cheer, rituals and gatherings with the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic? How do you safeguard your mental and emotional health?
Spend time outside
December is a cold month for much of the U.S., so spending time outdoors can be a challenge. But try to get outside as much as possible, especially during daylight hours.
“You might not be able to do the same things you could when the weather was warmer,” says licensed clinical psychologist Catherine Powers-James. “But there’s never been a better time to build a snowman, roast marshmallows over a fire pit, or go sledding as a family. So, bundle up and get out there, if you can. Even a short, brisk walk outside can lift your spirits.”
Make the most of online offerings
Whether it’s shopping until you drop or participating in religious services, take advantage of the online holiday offerings that are the most meaningful to you and your family.
“Many churches, synagogues and mosques have done a fabulous job of adjusting their formats so that congregants can either gather outside or go online to worship,” notes Powers-James. “And almost every store now offers gift purchasing and delivery options on the web.”
Online offerings can also help you reimagine some old traditions, by hosting white elephant, ugly sweater, or even tree trimming parties via Zoom or other virtual platforms.
Savor the simpler pleasures
At this point in the pandemic, nobody should be hosting — or attending — a large holiday gathering. But try to find the silver lining in that by remembering that travel is often a source of stress and financial strain. Many families are already struggling with those issues. So, keeping your celebration small this year can ease a lot of that pressure.
“Time and again, I hear patients say how nice it was just to stay home this Thanksgiving,” says Powers-James. “Some were relieved that they didn’t have to deal with that one weird uncle nobody likes. Others were glad to avoid the drama that sometimes ensues when adult children get together with their siblings and parents. And a few learned how to cook certain family dishes themselves, because they had to call their mothers for the details of a particular recipe.”
Avoiding holiday travel can not only keep you and others safer; it can also leave more time for simpler pleasures, such as baking holiday treats, making holiday decorations, or even mailing holiday cards to friends and family around the world.
“Being stuck at home could mean more time to write personalized messages or even make the cards by hand,” says Powers-James. “Even if you have nothing better to do, you can still drive around and look at lights. My own neighborhood has never decorated so much, so fast.”
Control what you can
At a time when so much seems out of our control, it’s more important than ever to remain committed to the proven strategies that can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus: washing your hands regularly, staying home and avoiding socializing with people outside of your household, and wearing a mask and social distancing when out in public.
“Not only can following these precautions give you a sense of control; it can also slow the spread of COVID-19 so that we can all hopefully get back to gathering with friends and loved ones and celebrating holidays in person sooner,” says Roy Chemaly, M.D., infection control and infectious diseases specialist.
Pay it forward
Giving to the less fortunate is a big part of many holiday traditions, and one way to foster that spirit is by turning our attention to the plight of others. Make a family project out of collecting canned, non-perishable goods for donation to a food pantry or adopting a needy family and purchasing both fun and practical gifts to give the children. If you’re in Houston and eligible, you can also donate blood or platelets at the MD Anderson Blood Bank to support cancer patients. Schedule an appointment online.
“We can always do something to help those in need,” says Powers-James. “And almost everything’s got an online or socially-distanced option available now. So, you can either drop off food, clothing or toys in person at a shelter’s drive-thru, or make a general donation online. A lot of people are struggling just to cover the bare necessities right now, so it’s more important than ever to give back.”
Know when to seek professional help
Whether it’s because they’re battling addiction, living alone, or grieving the loss of a relationship or loved one, many people have a hard time getting through the holidays. So, it’s important to acknowledge that this holiday season could be a little sadder and lonelier than usual.
“Shorter days can make the last month of the year one of the most difficult for stress and depressive symptoms, especially when people are cooped up inside,” says Powers-James. “So, don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you need it.”
And, if you or someone you know is in danger of hurting themselves, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255 immediately. Counselors are available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and offer free and confidential support.