Q & A Today: Stressing About a Pandemic Christmas
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Posted on December 6, 2020
Stay safe by avoiding sabre-toothed tigers.
Welcome to Q&A Today, a column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today
Q: My children have grown and are now spread out over three continents. Despite the distance, we’ve remained in close contact and have monthly Zoom chats. Christmas is the one time during the year everyone commits to travelling back to Tasmania so we can be together – no matter what! It’s like a rite of passage for us, except for this year.
With the recent lockdown in England, rising Covid-19 numbers in the United States and possible quarantine requirements for travellers to Tasmania, my children and their spouses living abroad don’t feel it is prudent to travel here this year. My husband and I agree with their decision. However, I’m worried about how my family will deal with this disappointment and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve been shedding tears. How can I get through Christmas this year? – Amelia
A: How wonderful to have a family that is so tight they defy the fraying of closeness that can occur with physical distance or the passage of time. These solidly good relationships, from which each of you benefit so much, makes the sadness and concern you have for yourself and your family this Christmas fully understandable
So how do you save Christmas? Whatever you decide to do to celebrate the holidays will not replace your wonderful family celebrations when everyone was physically together. But Christmas is salvageable. Now is a good time to start thinking about taking control of your holiday plans so that your sadness doesn’t cast a shadow of dread over your entire Christmas. In the mental health world we call this type of planning ‘coping ahead.’ In other words, plan now so you will have the ability to cope later on.
Coping ahead starts with acknowledging your feelings. You mentioned the tears. You’re going to miss not being with your family and it’s normal to feel sad. I’m glad you’re not stuffing or minimizing your feelings. It’s likely that your children share feelings similar to yours, although not all necessarily will respond the same. Some may just let it roll off their backs, viewing it as a ‘one off’ year, while others might experience higher levels of anxiety or sadness. Acknowledging your feelings of sadness and disappointment, even anger, can provide positive role modeling for the others on getting through these unprecedented times. And in turn, they can be there to provide you with support.
On top of not being with your family in the traditional manner, take a moment to fathom the cumulative and emotionally burdensome effect that Covid-19 may have had on you this year. Even if your work, leisure activities, money or health were not directly impacted, you likely have concerns for others you care about. These extended periods of worry create stress and can take an immeasurable emotional toll on us.
As if that wasn’t enough, you might find it interesting to know that we humans tend to have what is known as a ‘negativity bias.’ We are hard wired to allow bad events and feelings to impact on us more than positive ones. We can blame this inherited trait from our ancestors, who thousands of years ago lived in hazardous environments and had to worry about their day-to-day survival. It was imperative that they keep aware of the dangers facing them so they could stay alive. If, while out on a hunt, they had paused to admire a lovely sunrise, a sabre-toothed tiger might have unexpectedly emerged from the shadowy forest and killed them. So they kept focused on the ‘what ifs’ and known problems.
Even though we really don’t need that negativity bias any more, we inherited the genes that cause us to remember the negative experiences over the positive. So be on the alert for holiday triggers that can result in you keeping count of all the bah-humbug events occurring in the upcoming weeks. If you do keep count you’ll find all your hard work to salvage the holidays rapidly dissolving.
You can outsmart any lurking negativity bias by taking the time to relax and intentionally create positive thought patterns. A great way to achieve this is to focus on what you have and on what you can do rather than focusing on what you don’t have. Consider changing up your holiday plans so that while different than how you’d prefer them to be, you can take away something positive from Christmas 2020. This may involve creating completely new traditions. Perhaps you can plan for something very different, such as helping your community. Think about the values that are important to you and your family and see how you can apply them to helping others who are lonely, isolated or otherwise in need this year.
And just so you don’t allow yourself to have a Christmas totally void of family, why not schedule a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day family Zoom call that works well for everyone’s time zones? You can talk about Christmas this year and what it will feel like to be together next year. By connecting with your family and looking ahead you can keep any negativity bias at arm’s length.
Are there any traditions your family has established that can continue during your Zoom conversation? Maybe you can share a recipe ahead of time, so while not cooking together, you’ll all be joined in laughter and conversation while eating the same food. Or perhaps initiate a new tradition that lends itself to the uniqueness of this 2020 pandemic Christmas. For example, while enjoying each other’s company, each of you can reflect on what you learned about coping with Christmas 2020. Building on this subject, each following year could include conversations on issues that impacted on the family, and how each of you found the strength to persevere.
After Christmas has passed, ponder the following thought. Even though the holiday was not perfect, by establishing realistic expectations and being open to new ideas, did you find a sense of purpose in doing for others that energised your Christmas spirit? Did it warm your heart to know that your family desire to be together isn’t easily squashed by a virus? If so, these are the gifts you can discover in this difficult time in your life that help you learn, grow and increase your resilience for any as yet unknown challenges.
Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas,
Due to the end of year caesura of Tasmanian Times, Eileen’s wonderful Q&A will resume in January 2021. Join us then! – Editor
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