Coping with COVID over the holidays

Christmas stress, winter

By Kelly Hearn, Psychotherapist & Co Founder, Examined Life

Professional women I work with are feeling pretty overwhelmed and depleted by the past two years. 

Many report a sense that Covid-19 has reversed decades of progress on equality as they were left shouldering a disproportionate share of childcare and housework under lockdown coupled with remote working and economic insecurity. Women’s self-esteem has also taken a hit this year as they struggled to meet frankly super-human demands.  And now the pressure of the holidays is looming, with all of us faced with change and challenge to our more regular holiday traditions.  How can we cope?

Get real with feelings

The holiday season can make us feel like we have to park out negative emotions. We don’t want to be a Grinch.  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 this 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.

Accept that ‘good enough’ is good enough

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.

Establish a self-support routine

What we hoped would be a COVID-19 sprint has turned into a marathon. 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.

Scan for beauty and joy

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.  

Broaden out connections

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.

Cultivate presence over productivity

In ‘normal times,’ we tend to be a productivity-obsessed culture.  Busyness is worn as a badge of honour.  We attack never-ending ‘to-do’ lists.   Days and weeks are lost in a whirlwind.  With so many of our movements and activities curtailed in 2020, we are being forced to slow down.  And this can be uncomfortable, but ultimately very fruitful. A time we can start to practice and value presence over productivity. The poet and author Mark Nepo says: ‘At every turn, we need to stop the noise, our own and everyone else’s, not to retreat from the world but to live more fully in it.’

Take stock of the year, get out a blank sheet of paper for 2021 

We are coming to the end of a remarkable year, one in which the ways we live and work were fundamentally altered.  As we head into 2021, hopeful that vaccines will usher in more freedom and mobility, it is an apt moment to consider what lessons learned will remain applicable beyond Covid-19 disruptions.  Get out that blank piece of paper.  What did you learn this year? What do you want to leave behind?  What do you want to take with you?   Always important questions, but all the more so at this moment in history.

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