By UKCP psychotherapist Kelly Hearn
The holidays always bring up strong emotions. Some very positive: we look forward to the warmth of connecting with our family and friends in festive environs. Others less positive: we wonder if we’ll manage to ‘pull off’ the season without exacerbating family rifts or grieving lost connections. It’s fair to say that the 2020 holiday season is shaping up to be somewhat exceptional circumstances, with all of us experiencing change and challenge to our more regular holiday traditions. So how can we cope?
The holiday season can make us feel like we have to park out negative emotions. We don’t want to be a Grinch. We may be going through emotional hell for one reason or another, but we put on our finest party attire and sing our way through carols even though we may be crying on the inside. In 2020, as ever, we can’t will happiness on seasonal demand. But this year is a bit different in that most people we know are also dealing with some form of hardship. COVID-19 has affected us all, albeit in different ways and to varying degrees. Does knowing that we’re not alone in our struggles make it easier to get real? To acknowledge feelings of sadness, anxiety or loss? I believe it does, and that it is enormously helpful. We humans connect in our vulnerability. Speaking a bit more openly and truthfully is one way we can share together and support each other through the challenges.
When it all feels dark and heavy, we need to broaden our aperture. To scan for the helpers, the hope, the good and the beautiful because they are all still there. French philosopher, Blaise Pascal said: ‘In difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart.’ It helps, truly. This isn’t to diminish or deny current difficulties, but it is a way to keep them from crowding out the rest. Sometimes it is useful to set aside time for this, proactively making a date with ourselves to seek out inspiration. We are far more practiced in reaching for our phones and scrolling the latest (negative) headlines; refocusing our attention to beauty and joy may take a little extra effort at first.
Many of us will be encountering the loss of usual rituals, traditions and family this year due to COVID restrictions. We feel these absences deeply, but they do create space for ushering in new experiences. A colleague of mine has decided to volunteer at Crisis this Christmas. A friend is arranging a winter solstice home retreat. If you were starting with a blank sheet of paper (and the restrictions in place), how would you design your ideal celebrations? A time to get creative, free of the usual ‘restraints’ of tradition and expectations.
With shorter, darker days and many of us physically distanced from loved ones, feelings of isolation can set in. We are hard-wired for connection so being without this company can be incredibly distressing. We know to make a priority of staying connected to friends and family however possible, but sometimes we overlook important connections that may exist beyond the obvious human ones: to pets, nature, faith, music, movement, poetry, drawing. We are not alone, far from it. I find a long walk (or ‘sanity walk’ as I like to call them) is a great reminder of this simple truth. Walking in the wider world offers perspective. At its most basic level, feet touching the earth, eyes and ears and all senses taking in the life all around us gives the comfort of interdependence, or interbeing as it is sometimes called. Walking in this way is such an expansive exercise; it invites us to re-engage with the world around us rather than recoil into isolation.
The holidays are often a time when perfectionism creeps in. What is supposed to be a joyous time of year is often in equal parts stressful due to these unrealistic expectations. COVID-19 has made the picture-perfect holiday season all but impossible anyway, so can we forget the Sainsbury’s commercials and collectively sigh a breath of relief that ‘good enough’ really is good enough in 2020? An extra bonus if we agree to carry this mentality into future years as well.
What we hoped would be a COVID sprint has turned into a marathon. Many are feeling bombarded and overwhelmed by all that 2020 has thrown our way. When stress goes up, the support in our lives needs to ratchet up in step. Get clear with yourself what actions make you feel better, and those that make you feel worse. Write them down. Commit to increasing the former and decreasing the latter. This is enormously effective but deceptively simple. In our productivity-obsessed culture, we often forget to rest – always important, but especially so after a tumultuous year.
Focus on rest and stillness over the final days of this year. It may make for a different form of festive ‘celebration’, but it feels particularly needed after all we’ve collectively endured in 2020. Happy holidays!
If you or someone you know is struggling with any of the issues discussed in this blog:
In an emergency, call: 999
NHS (England), call: 111
NHS Direct (Wales), call: 0845 46 47
The Samaritans 24-hour helpline, call: 116 123