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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jo Ann Unger, C. Psych.

Tips for finding Joy in another COVID Holiday Season

I am sure none of us imagined we would be navigating through another pandemic winter holiday. Generally speaking, this is not where we hoped to be. While vaccines have been very helpful in reducing the spread and keeping many of us safe from the serious effects of COVID-19, the fourth wave continues to loom. Even so, this is a special time of year for many people in Manitoba and so I thought I would share some of my ideas to make the most of this time. There are still many ways we can enjoy our friends and family and the meaning this time of year brings.

1. Stay in the Present Moment

It is tempting, especially as we try to anticipate our journey through a pandemic, to look ahead, worry and try to predict what will come next. This can steal precious moments from the activities we are able to have right now. As you take time to safely be with family and friends, try to bring your full attention to what you are doing, hearing, seeing and the people you can enjoy in this moment. While it is important to be mindful of behaviours needed to keep each other safe from COVID, once we have done that, let yourself fully appreciate the moments you are in.

2. Check our Expectations

However, it is also important to remember that we may not be able to enjoy all of the activities we usually do at this time of year. We need to have realistic expectations about what makes sense to do this year; in terms of safety and how much energy, time, and resources we have to create memories and activities for others. An important element in managing our stress during the holiday time is managing our expectations. These “shoulds” or expectations come from many places including comparing ourselves with others, popular media messages, the culture around us, our family and friends, and our past experiences. If we are feeling stressed or dissatisfied with how our holidays are going, one step might be to look at what we are expecting of our holidays, ourselves and those around us. Are our expectations realistic? Are we being perfectionistic in our expectations? Will they truly make a difference in our experience? Or might letting some things go allow us to actually experience more joy in the events that are taking place? Maybe there are things we can let go of and still have a good holiday.

Related to this is to recognize that events will never go exactly as planned. Mistakes will be made. Plans will go awry. Something will be forgotten. Being accepting of these bumps in the road is another way we can be realistic with ourselves and those around us. Knowing this, we can approach our holiday events and those around us with some flexibility, grace and a sense of humour. Sometimes the biggest mistakes become the best holiday memories and even lead to new traditions. This flexible attitude can also help us focus on and appreciate what went well rather than what went wrong; reducing our stress level and increasing our joy.

3. More is not Always Better

Connected to high expectations is the pressure to do more, to go big. The more activities, events and tasks we add to our lists, the greater the stress and the greater the chance for overwhelm. If this happens, are the events defeating their intended purpose?

Sometimes our desire to do more is related to a sense of obligation or the sense of “needing” to do certain things. If we feel this type of pressure, it can be helpful to take a moment and really examine the obligations we feel exist. Which ones really are obligations? Are some just things we think we need to do but really we could let go of? Can we learn to say no to some people? If we become so stressed out by all of the things we think we have to do, we won’t enjoy them anyway, our mood will suffer and we may actually contribute to having a grumpy holiday for everyone around us. So maybe some things we feel we “have” to do, maybe we don’t. More is not always better.

This statement also applies to gift giving. It can be helpful to remember how quickly children get tired of their toys and what long-term memories are really made of – time together, relaxed (not stressed out) parents, family and friends, and unexpected moments. When planning gift giving, it is also important to be aware of our financial situation. The short-term reward of smiling faces and impressing with gifts should be balanced against our ability to afford the gifts and potential financial burden and stress that may result. It can be very helpful to plan a budget specifically for holiday spending and stick to it, remembering that special and meaningful moments seldom involve stuff.

4. Include Meaningful Activities

Which brings us to our next tip. It is very helpful to keep in mind what the holidays mean for us spiritually, culturally, and personally. Focusing our time and energy on the meaning behind our activities, will help us to truly benefit from them. Our meanings may be different, but prioritizing the values underneath the activities, will allow us to be rejuvenated and benefit from the activities we choose to do. This year, make sure to include events and experiences that are meaningful to you and give you joy. What traditions or experiences are important for you to have a good holiday? Maybe make those the priority rather than creating a holiday solely for others and to meet expectations. Perhaps choose one or two of those things for yourself and other family members rather than doing what you think you “should” be doing during the holiday time. However, the same tips above still apply. More is not necessarily better. Try not to turn these choices into new expectations or obligations that create more stress. Try to strive for balance, meaning and joy.

5. Find Ways to Give

One way we might include something meaningful during our holiday time is to find ways to give to others. Research shows that doing something kind for ourselves improves our mood for the day while doing something nice for others can improve our mood for up to five days. It helps others and us! Giving back to others helps us feel good, improves our community, and adds to the meaning of the holiday. Again, the tips above still apply. We should do this in a way that works for us and our level of stress. On the other side, maybe giving to others during the holiday time can give us ideas and motivation to think about how we can give back to others throughout the year. The benefits to us and others remain no matter when we give.

Another way we can give back to others during the holiday time is to include and be sensitive to others’ situations. For example, others may not celebrate the same holidays we do and may feel left out or feel their holidays are minimized in comparison. Obviously, this applies particularly for those of us in the dominant culture. While we certainly can feel the freedom to celebrate our holidays, we can do so with grace, kindness and sensitivity. Learning about and appreciating others' holidays, that we may not celebrate, is an important way to build and create community and a sense of unity.

Another situation that requires sensitivity is for those for whom the holiday time is very difficult. This may be due to a sense of loneliness, grief, remembrance of loved ones lost, or other reasons. Holidays can evoke a lot of mixed feelings for people. Making sure we do not expect everyone to feel happy or the way we do is a way we can be sensitive and give back to others. Listening to and allowing those around us to have their unique experiences is a wonderful gift.

6. Feeling Grief is Okay

Holidays are often a time we remember those we have lost and feel the hole that they have left in our lives more deeply. It is okay to feel grief and sadness during the holidays. Sometimes we think this is not okay because it’s “supposed to” be a happy time. It is okay to remember. It is okay to feel sad. Part of your holiday experience might be to take some special time to remember them, acknowledge them and their lives, talk about them and what you miss about them, and maybe even cry. This can actually add to the meaning of the holiday for you and your family. If we try to bottle these feelings or deny that we have them, this can actually add to our stress and the feelings can come out anyway in unexpected and unplanned ways. As we allow these feelings to have some space, it may actually allow us to enjoy the other moments more fully. We can try to balance the times of sadness and grief with those of meaning and joy. However, this may depend on the recency of the loss. If your loss is very recent, please have flexibility, grace and gentleness with yourself. Do what you need to do to manage as best you can. It will be hard and, unfortunately, there is no shortcut for this. We must go through grief. However, know that the intensity of the grief will shift with time.

7. Manage Loneliness and the Urge to Isolate

Not all of us have family or many friends to share our time with during a holiday season. COVID-19 restrictions may also be impacting our ability to gather in the ways we usually do. If this is your situation, know that it is okay to feel sad about this. While we may not have access to a community right now, one way we can cope is to think about what we do have control over. Maybe we can still include events in our holiday that are meaningful to us and bring us joy. Maybe some of these can be done alone. Or maybe there are a few people in our lives that we can reach out to and spend time with in person or virtually. Maybe they will be busy but maybe not. We don’t know unless we check. Just as in the above tips, we can look for the good around us and in our situation. Focusing on what we have rather than on what we don’t have, can have a profound impact on our mood. We can also take some steps to be with people and resist the urge to isolate further. Humans are social beings and complete social isolation rarely makes us feel better. There may be some events that are open to you that you can take part in. It can be helpful to make a plan for things and events we will do rather than waiting for something to fall into place. Maybe there are places to meet others in our similar situation within our community or at religious or cultural centres. Maybe this could be a time when we give back to others. This allows us to be and celebrate with others, gives us a sense of purpose and meaning and improves our mood as well. Even if we do all of these things, we might still feel sad or lonely sometimes. This is okay.

8. Navigating Difficult Conversations

The holidays may be a time when you are with people you might not ordinarily chose to be around, do not get along with or do not agree with on many issues. This might be particularly true this year due to the differing views on the pandemic and vaccines. Here are some tips that can help you navigate difficult conversations.

  • It is helpful to remember that disagreeing with others on various topics and issues is okay. We can still care about and have positive relationships with people with whom we disagree. Actually, this can be a good thing as we can grow and learn from those who see things differently than we do.

  • Remember that opinions are opinions and we are all allowed to have different ones. We don’t need to change each other’s minds or come to the same opinion by the end of a conversation.

  • Balance sharing your view with good listening skills. Try to understand the other person’s point of view. Good listening skills go a long way to keeping a conversation respectful and civil.

  • Find and look for areas where you agree. Focussing on the commonalities may help the conversation to feel less intense and decrease tension and stress. You may find that the underlying values you have might actually be quite similar though how you choose to express them is different.

  • Be kind with your words and try to stay calm, maybe reminding yourself that this is a family member, someone you care about and/or that the outcome of the conversation is probably not really that important in the grand scheme of things. You don’t need to change their mind about anything or vice versa.

  • Try to end the conversation on a peaceful note before things become too heated (whatever that means in your family or friend group). Some ways to do this are to just agree to disagree, remind each other that it’s okay to think differently, change the topic or change the activity. Try not to just walk away from the conversation at a difficult point, leaving you both feeling uncomfortable, frustrated or angry. Try to talk about something else lighter or more positive or engage in an activity you both enjoy together to reinforce maintaining a positive relationship even when you disagree.

  • If you are concerned about potential difficult conversations at an upcoming event, plan ahead. Have some ideas for enjoyable conversations such as favourite memories and things you have in common. Plan some activities for your time together that foster fun, laughter and the creation of new positive memories.

If you would like more tips on this topic, I recommend the presentation by Daniel Dacombe, provided to Healthcare Workers called "Hard Conversations: Talking to Friends and Family about COVID-19 and Vaccines."

Balance. Joy. Meaning. Fun. Rest. Family. Friends. Kindness. Community. Love. Take the time to foster these values, and any others that are important to you, in a reasonable and flexible way for yourself and those around you. Whatever holiday you celebrate, I wish you all of these things and more.


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