Holiday Stress Abounds

Negotiating Tricky Situations in Strange Times 

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Our holidays are usually stressful enough, but this year, we have political strife, a divided nation, AND a pandemic? We have topped out on stress tests. 

Part of the problem is the same as always: Here come the holidays, and we are supposed to be full of love, rejoicing, and being thankful about our lives. But 2020 has been a most difficult year for us all. And, we are thankful but having to go around a big turkey dinner table and say why?  Ugh…. 

We can hardly begin to catalog the stressors that await us! 

Usual, annual stressors: 

  • Deciding each year which family to visit, how long to stay, and how much to drink while there. 
  • Deciding how to have any meaningful time during the holidays being without your partner who chooses to travel elsewhere. 
  • Deciding what to do on the holidays themselves because you dont have a partner. 
  • Deciding how to buy gifts for friends and family on a very limited budget. 
  • Deciding how to deal with all the feelings that the holidays produce, including depressive episodes and at worst, suicidality. 
  • Deciding how to come out to family for the first time. 
  • Deciding to bring home your first intimate, important partner. 
  • Deciding to be sober this year for the first time. 
  • Wondering how to introduce and then mediate your partners and parents’ reactions to each other. 
  • Wondering how to handle it when your partner refuses to ever come home with you because you are still in the closet, not only about the relationship but about being part of the LGBTQI community. 
  • Going  home for the first time after a divorce or death of a partner.

COVID stressors: 

  • What happens when you want to visit family, but your partner is more COVID-afraid than you are? How do you make decisions about what to do, where to go, and how to protect yourselves? 
  • How can you make travel plans when you or your loved ones may test positive for COVID days before the event? 
  • What happens if your community cancels all holiday plans?  Do you feel even more alone and depressed, or do you enjoy not having to deal with the stress? 
  • What happens if this is the last time you might be able to see your wonderful grandmother before she passes on? 
  • What if you are older than your friend group, who loves to party, and you are immune compromised? Do you stay home alone and get depressed – or risk your life to be with friends?

Political stressors: 

  • What happens when Uncle “Too Much To Drink” or a friend gets long-winded about his conservative views, especially about the LGBTQI community? 
  • In this exhausting election year (or more), your family or friend group may be very divided about who is winning what.   
  • You are a unicorn or an alien in your friend or family group and you usually try not to rock the boat politically—but this year?  Really? 

 There are so many stresses! 

What do we do with all these stresses?  First of all, no one can make decisions but you.  You can ask friends, family and even therapists what you should do to handle holiday stresses, but no one can decide for you about what you should do.  And, each time you ask for another person’s opinion, you may change your mind about what you should do, fluctuating frequently. 

 What if there are no “shoulds?” What if there are no guidebooks for dealing with the holidays during a pandemic because we have never faced this type of tragedy in our lifetimes? What if no one is an expert who can tell us what to do and guarantee not only our safety but our happiness, or at least decrease our stress? 

 The good thing about having no rule book is that we get to be creative with our decisions this year.  Try not to let anyone shame you about what you decide, or if they do and you feel horrible because someone told you what a bad decision you made, know that some part of you may also believe that for it to affect you so much. And, maybe this isn’t something you want any feedback on.   

 Like, “Dear Mom, I have decided not to attend the holiday meal this year because of COVID risks.”  She shoots back, “WHAT? Don’t you love me anymore?  How can you not come home? You are just being overly selfish about this!”  Not what you wanted to hear.   

 So, first, brainstorm every option you can imagine about how to make decisions about the holidays. Dont evaluate your options during this stage of decision-making.  Only after brainstorming, you look at your options one by one. You can even make a written pros and cons list about possible consequences to each option. After doing that, look and see which choices have the fewest negatives and the most positives.   

 Before you decide, you can talk with a friend not to debate the issues, but to see just how comfortable you are with the choices you want to make. Pick a specific time to tell your partner, family or friends about your decision. You can even let them persuade you to choose a different option, if you are open to that. But, if you are certain about your decision, be clear and concise, and don’t act like you are open for feedback. You may get it anyway. 

 All in all, many people are so stressed during the holidays, I am not quite sure why we have them. Rituals and traditions are great but if rituals stress us out so very much, why do we have them? Because rituals are important to human beings. Maybe we can create new rituals to spend time with family and/or friends at different times of year, and when life is safer that it is now. You can always start your own traditions, see if they take hold, and if they don’t, try something else next year.   

 You may let some people down during the holidays, they may be disappointed in you or get mad at you.  But, you can also interpret their disappointment or anger as their loving and caring about you.  And, isnt it nice that someone does?   

 Remember, you don’t have to please all of the people all of the time, and if you try to do that you may be sacrificing yourself, which causes stress too, even if internally.  

Another tip: try to get clear on what YOU want before you negotiate with anyone else about what they want.  Then, and only then, do you have something to negotiate.  Most of all, explore what you can do to decrease your own unique stress and increase your enjoyment during these crazy days! 

Barbara Sanders, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, an activist and a writer in Nashville: [email protected]