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

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Collation 3:2-5

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11 (KJV)

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