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The holidays will be different this year – here’s how to cope

The holidays often bring a sense of joy, but not without stress for most families. The hustle and bustle, gift buying and meal preparation can be overwhelming. But this year, with challenges including COVID-19, stress may reach an all-time high.

UF/IFAS associate professor and psychologist Heidi Radunovich shares tips to help you and your family cope with the mounting challenges many face this holiday season.

“This year is particularly stressful for many families,” she said. “In addition to the COVID-19 related stress, it is also an election year full of political strife that can cause a lot of tension within families. While we cannot eliminate stress, there are things we can do to cope with it.”

Consider the quality of your visits over quantity

Try to think of this holiday season as a way to create new traditions or a way to rethink these holidays. You may not have the same experience, but this experience could be different and better in its own unique way.

There are some things that we cannot recreate in an online setting and that is okay. Many people are trying to recreate major events and traditions virtually and it can create a lot of pressure and stress for those doing the coordinating. The holidays are about the quality of your connection, not the quantity of your time spent together. Keep this in mind as you plan family gatherings.

Trying to get 20 people together on a virtual visit can be difficult. Keeping the gatherings smaller, both in-person and online, will likely be best for everyone to truly connect with one another.

Keep visits peaceful

“There is always some tension within families, but I think this year is particularly tense,” Radunovich said. “The current political tensions are also sometimes tied to COVID-19 and can cause a lot of friction within families. There are several elements of that that can lead to more fighting or lack of agreement on how to handle the holidays. There can be some very strong opinions on this matter, and it can be difficult to reach these decisions tactfully.”

Don’t feel that you need to change anyone else’s mind. It is very difficult and, in most cases, impossible to truly shift someone else’s thinking on matters like these. Accepting that you have very different world views while doing what is most comfortable for you is most important to managing stress and maintaining your mental health. If you do things you are not comfortable with, you will increase your stress levels.

Try to keep any visit, online or in person, short. This may help reduce the opportunities for people to get into arguments. If you can, set some ground rules. For example, you may want to establish a rule that the family is not going to talk about politics or other issues that cause friction. If family members or friends break those rules, ignore them or quickly change the topic. Sometimes it is best not to have those conversations and if you set that boundary early on, you are more likely to have a peaceful and enjoyable visit.

Take time for you

Try to take time for yourself and do not overschedule yourself just because you can. It can be easy to pack our schedules with virtual gatherings because we don’t have to leave our home to attend them, but it is better to give yourself downtime just for you. Establishing boundaries related to the time you need for yourself and to prepare for the holidays will be especially important this year. This includes scheduling special and relaxing things just for you.

Once we are feeling stressed, we are so busy putting our resources towards the stressor, that thinking about our own needs sometimes goes out the window. Keeping yourself and your needs in mind is so important and we must focus on that because otherwise our bodies become weakened and our immune systems are compromised. That self-care is critical so we can cope with stress the best we can.

Taking breaks when you need them, eating healthy and getting enough sleep will help you cope this holiday season. Pushing through and trying to work under a lot of stress can also make things worse, so be in tune with when you need a break.

Exercise is one of the best ways to cope with stress. This can be hard to do, but it is incredibly powerful for stress reduction. We are experiencing fight or flight responses when we are stressed. Physical activity can help us feel better and get that out of our system. It also releases endorphins that make us feel good.

You cannot please everyone

Accept that not everyone will get what they want this year. Our choices may be different from others, but that is okay. Try to enjoy this time with your family as much as you can. Do not give too much of yourself and do not expect too much of yourself and the holidays this year – that could prevent you from enjoying yourself and cause added stress.

Simple is sweet

Think about paring things down a bit. Reduce the expectation that everyone buys gifts for everyone. Consider a gift swap where each family member purchases one gift for just one person – not everyone purchasing gifts for everybody. This can reduce the financial and organizational stress of trying to get presents for so many people.

Keep things as simple as possible. This may mean just sending holiday cards instead of gifts. Consider mailing presents instead of feeling as though you must hand deliver your gifts. Try to reduce the burden on yourself and others.

Control what you can control and let the rest go

You cannot make your stressors go away – they are what they are – but you can control how you respond. That does not mean that the stress itself naturally goes away, but you can try to handle it in ways that make it less overwhelming.

“We can also change how we think about things,” Radunovich said. “We are thinking creatures and when we start to think about things that make us worry it is really easy to go down a negative spiral. Try to catch yourself when you have a negative thought and challenging the thought. Ask yourself, why do I feel that way? Is that really going to happen?”

Focus on the reason for the season rather than focusing on seeing everyone, being everywhere and buying presents for everyone. It can be easy to be swept up in the non-stop nature of the holidays, but this year, focus more on the relationships and the quality visiting time. That is the best thing we can do.

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