Navigating holiday pressures in the COVID-19 reality

Holiday pressures are always challenging, and maybe more so this year. Risks of COVID-19 exposure may have you worried about attending indoor gatherings and sharing a meal or hug with loved ones. How can you deal with the pressure of deciding whether to accept or decline an invitation, and how do you cope with changes this holiday may bring?

For advice, we turned to two faculty members from Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, David Topor and Patricia Bamonti. Both are clinical psychologists with the VA Boston Healthcare System.

How do I cope with the pressure to attend holiday events?

Bamonti: Talk about the risks and benefits with your doctor and with the loved ones who’ll be at the event. Keep an open dialogue so the pressure doesn’t feel like this is just your decision but a collective decision, so you’ll feel supported by your loved ones.

What should I say if the holiday event seems risky?

Topor: Be an advocate for what you feel is needed to reduce risk — your risk and the risk to others — at the event [see “Maintaining safety at indoor holiday gatherings”]. Consult with your doctor and health agency guidelines and offer ways to reduce risks to make the gathering safer.

Maintaining safety at indoor holiday gatheringsAs we reported last month, COVID-19 risks are higher indoors — especially if the space is small, crowded, or poorly ventilated; if you spend a long time there; if people aren’t wearing masks; or if you share a hug. You can reduce risks by taking these steps:Limit the gathering size, depending on your local rules. For example, Connecticut caps indoor gatherings at 25 people; Minnesota caps it at 10. The more people who attend a gathering, the more risk for COVID exposure.Keep windows open to improve ventilation.Avoid physical contact.Wear masks that cover the nose and mouth.Stay six feet away from people who don’t live in your household, even at a dining table. Or abandon a table and set up chairs around a large room.Have only one person serve food.Wash hands (using disposable towels) before eating.Disinfect commonly touched surfaces, such as doorknobs and faucets.Limit the amount of time you spend at a gathering. There is no official number of minutes that increases risk. The longer you attend a gathering, the higher the risk.Keep a list of attendees to notify in case someone develops COVID.

How do I decline an invitation without feeling awkward?

Topor: Write out a script ahead of time and practice it, or have an email ready to go. Keep it brief and stick to the facts — you can say, “I am not going to in-person gatherings this year due to COVID-19.” Then add some emotions — you will miss the experience and you’re sad about it. And suggest alternative ways to spend time together, such as a video or phone call. If your doctor says you are at increased risk from COVID-19 because of various medical conditions, you can substitute “At my doctor’s urging, I am not going to in-person gatherings this year due to COVID-19.”

How do I cope with the sadness of being separated from loved ones?

Bamonti: Your personal values regarding protecting people’s health guided your decision. Honor those values.

Topor: It’s healthy to grieve because something is lost. And losing contact with family and friends is a loss.

How can I enjoy holidays alone?

Bamonti: If you practice a religion, watch online religious services. Make holiday food and decorate; put up things that are meaningful to you. Pull out photo albums or make a scrapbook of holidays past. Or share a special recipe with your kids or grandkids; that could be another way to share a holiday tradition if you can’t be there.

Topor: Another idea is to relive and really savor a past holiday experience: watch a video and recall the smells and sounds. You can also imagine the next holiday and how good it will feel to -celebrate in person with others.

Bamonti: Also, think of this holiday season as another occasion in your life when you’ll need to face hardships and challenges: you’ve already proved that you’re resilient.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; …

Luke 11:28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

James 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,

Ecclesiastes 7:14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

1 Corinthians 13:4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant

Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

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