As the close of an unforgettable year approaches, we’re all feeling a little unsure about what the holiday season will look and feel like. But on par with the rest of 2020, we know it’s going to be strange.
The holidays are a charged time of year. For some, the holidays carry with them an air of spiced reminiscence and heart-warming traditions. For others, the holidays are triggering, digging up old family dysfunctions and traumas that have us counting down until the season is over.. Or perhaps we get a little bit of both.
As they say, if you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family. Even for the strongest and healthiest family, the holidays can be a complex, emotional time. And then you add COVID to the equation…
The coronavirus pandemic has made one thing for certain: our holiday season won’t feel normal. There won’t be crazed shopping at the malls. There won’t be massive family gatherings (hopefully). And the overall tone of 2020 might have everyone feeling a little bit off. Holiday stress is nearly unavoidable.
But this doesn’t mean that we don’t get to find some moments of enjoyment, or at least retain our mental health. Throughout this blog, we’ll talk about getting ready for the holidays this year. We’ll discuss the obstacles that tend to surface during the holiday season, and the extra holiday stress to anticipate due to COVID.
Know that if you’re a little anxious or unsure about what’s to unfold, you’re not alone. But we can navigate the uncertainty together.
The Holidays: It’s Complicated
Some of us get so excited about the holidays that we forget the holidays are surefire triggers for others. The holidays encompass a time charged with emotion and memory, mostly because of one factor: family.
Holidays and family tend to go hand-in-hand. So our relationships with our family will say a lot about our relationship to the holidays and whether we experience holiday stress.
How we grew up and experienced the holidays in our childhood has much to say about our present affiliations with the holidays. For some of us, the holidays were a joyful time of gifting, celebration, abundance, and fun. The holidays genuinely felt like a special time of year, and so holidays in our adulthood trigger positive nostalgic memories.
For others, the holidays were a particularly challenging time. The holidays might have been a time where financial struggles, substance abuse, amplified conflict, and trauma were front and center. And so the approach of the holidays can trigger an unpleasant slew of memories.
Both experiences of the holidays are of course entirely valid. We are all entitled to enjoy or loathe the holidays. But we’re also all deserving of joy and peace — at all times of the year.
The Most Wonderful Time of The Year? Holidays & Trauma
The holidays are a time where the volume of everything is turned up. There’s more drinking, more eating, more social life, more noise. For someone whose experience of the holidays was unpleasant growing up, this higher volume can translate into an abundance of triggers and holiday stress.
Certan Christmas music, a seasonal smell, the presence of alcohol, the thought of family gatherings — for some, these stimuli are pleasant. For others, they activate trauma symptoms. Trauma survivors can be prone to reliving their unprocessed traumas during this time of year – and must navigate this time with a lot of mindfulness and care.
If you are someone who’s triggered around the holidays, it’s important to recognize that this time of year will illuminate all that is not yet processed within us. Because of the genuine challenge that presents itself, we may need to pay ourselves extra care. We’ll talk more about strategies for making it through the holiday season healthily below.
Family Time Isn’t Always Fun Time
The reality is, a lot of family dynamics are not healthy. We may thrive individually, but find our healthy practices and habits out the window when we’re around our family again. This happens, and can be expected to some extent.
When families come together, we can be triggered by the past. When we are triggered, old patterns and behaviors take over. When these old ways start interacting with each other — conflict ensues. Dysfunctional family systems can be incredibly challenging to step out of. Returning to old family dynamics can feel like sinking sand — once you’re in, it’s hard to step out.
For many of us, the holidays were already hard enough. COVID has thrown a wrench into everyone’s holiday plans, flipping our holiday experience on its head.
Perhaps the holidays have always been your favorite time of year and you adore spending time with your family. Well, the holidays this year might be incredibly upsetting for you. Understandably so. Many of us are having to make some challenging but responsible decisions to stay home for the holidays, out of selflessness for others and the larger pandemic.
Our responsible decisions can upset our family and friends if they feel differently than us. This means that for those of us who usually love the holidays, we may have an unfamiliar experience of truly dreading them.
COVID has asked us all individually to explore our morals in how we spend time with people. Even in the tightest family, morals can differ and create rifts. Even if we do make responsible decisions, we may still be devastated about what the holidays will look like. We might find ourselves completely alone this year, or missing out on what could have been.
There is No Normal
Regardless of how we relate to the holidays, we can agree that they aren’t going to feel normal. Because how could they?
Do you find yourself wishing that the holidays would be normal this year? Is that impacting your ability to make responsible decisions? Unfortunately, we all have to sit with the hard questions this year, as discomfort seems to be the theme of 2020.
The world is in the middle of a massive pandemic — there is nothing normal about that overarching umbrella. The holidays cannot be normal when our social stage has been shut down, the healthcare system is overwhelmed, the economy is crippled, and the wellbeing of so many is at risk. The sooner we can accept that there is no normal, the sooner we can get on to creating a responsible and enjoyable experience for ourselves.
How To Navigate The Holidays in 2020
Just because there’s no normal, doesn’t mean that we can’t access mental health at the very minimum. Even in the wildest circumstances it is still possible to enjoy the holiday season… As long as we are open to the experience being different.
Holiday Stress and Trauma
If you are someone whose traumas are triggered by the holiday, where mental health is genuinely out of reach during this time, it’s so critical to reach out for help. Support prior to or during the holiday season can come in the form of therapy or support groups, depending on what your experience is.
Holidays can be challenging because their familial implications send our unresolved traumas up to the surface. When we’re triggered, it’s tough to navigate our family dynamics and mental health with clarity. We can lean on a therapist for unbiased support to help us resolve what is triggered. While this is challenging, it also makes these times ideal for healing.
Holiday Stress and Covid
So much of enjoying the holidays comes down to our own boundaries.
Boundaries represent our ability to stand for our own desires, needs, and values. So often, a lack of boundaries is what makes the holidays so challenging in the first place. Without boundaries in place, we can easily lose our center in the family drama and hype of the season.
We all need boundaries, regardless of our family dynamics and relationship to holidays. Boundaries are the fencing that keeps our mental health intact. But it can be surprising how challenging they are to uphold.
With COVID disforming our holiday normal, boundaries have never been more important nor prone to violation. Navigating social distancing is such a grey area, and choosing to be responsible is the difficult choice to make that others will likely challenge.
Boundaries are what help you stick with your responsible decisions, without wavering upon someone’s confrontation. We all need that right now, right? Here are some general pointers about setting your boundaries and sticking to them:
- Determine your values. Before you set your boundaries, you need to know what’s important to you. What are you standing up for? What’s your idea of right and wrong? How are you considering the health of the whole, while adhering to your own beliefs?
- Express your values though boundaries. Your boundaries are how you protect your values. For example: maintaining social distancing for the health of the whole is important to you. Your boundary is that you will not see anyone socially, other than those who live in your house.
- Communicate your boundary. This is where things get challenging, particularly during the holiday season. Communicating your boundary means sharing it with others when relevant, like when your family starts reaching out to spend time together over the holiday.
- Respect your boundary. Respecting your own boundary is the most important part! This means defending your boundary when it’s challenged. Reiterating your boundary when someone opposes it is respecting your boundary.
- Accept conflict with kindness. When your boundary opposes the desires of someone else, conflict is likely. But there’s no wrongdoing in you honoring your own boundary. Boundaries are allowed to clash — but we should be kind in respecting others’ boundaries.
- Remove yourself from attack. Sometimes, our boundaries might trigger someone. They might react to our boundary with aggression, because subconsciously they believe their reaction will change your boundary. Feel free to remove yourself from unhealthy communication, as this is a part of respecting your own boundary.
2020: The End Is Near
As this chaotic year comes to a close, we remember that everyone is having their own experience with all of this. There is not one, uniform experience of COVID nor 2020. We are all triggered in our own ways, which means our boundaries all look a little different.
We can remember these differences as we move through the rest of the holiday season. What the world needs a little bit more of is compassion. We don’t have to have identical experiences or even understand other people in order to have compassion for them.
What we all share in common is the struggle that has characterized 2020. All of our worlds have been shaken up, and our expectations completely disappointed. As we move through this season of giving, what we can give each other is a little room to breathe, and kindness as we welcome a much anticipated new year.