Tips for managing holiday blues during a pandemic


The holiday season may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be one of the most stressful. The pressure to have a picture perfect holiday combined with stress over managing multiple—often competing—obligations can certainly cause a case of the blues. Add navigating a global pandemic to the list, and your case of the holiday blues can multiply as quickly as your to-do list.

How can you manage the stress and anxiety of the holiday season? Elizabet Bilderback, counselor at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of San Antonio, offers her tips below for how to navigate the holiday season and the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as advice on seeking professional help if you feel you need it.

Reframe your thoughts

A key practice Bilderback shares with her patients is the importance of reframing your thoughts. Your thoughts about a situation, not the situation itself, create your feelings. Changing your thoughts therefore changes how you feel.

If you are unable to gather with family and participate in traditional holiday festivities, it’s natural to feel sad and isolated. However, focusing on positive thoughts can help minimize those negative feelings and keep them from becoming overwhelming.

“If I’m only telling myself doom, gloom and negative things about it, I’m going to feel worse,” Bilderback said. “If I can convince myself it’s temporary, I’ll feel better. If I tell myself I can Zoom and I have other ways I can be in contact with people, I can believe myself and reframe those thoughts.”

It’s important to note that this isn’t a means of dismissing feelings of isolation or sadness, Bilderback said, as those are very real in the current climate. However, reframing thoughts can help you focus on the future and can also help you feel confident in your decisions that minimize the risk of spreading the virus. While you may be sad you can’t gather as you normally do, focus instead on the fact that you’ve done your best to keep your loved ones safe and healthy.

Manage expectations

Your favorite holiday memories may include your entire extended family gathering around the table together, and you may feel pressure to recreate that same picturesque setting every year. It’s important to keep in mind that this year will likely look different, and that’s OK.

“We need to have reasonable expectations so we aren’t disappointed,” Bilderback said. “Rather than having everyone in my house this year, my goal is to get the immediate family to Zoom, so we can see each other and laugh.”

Get creative

Just because your traditions may look different this year, you don’t have to scrap them altogether. With advances in technology, even if you can’t be together physically, you can still see your family via FaceTime, Zoom and other video conferencing technology.

If your favorite part of the holiday is watching your grandchildren open presents, have a video call so you can still be a part of the action even if you aren’t physically present. If you live for your aunt’s sweet potato pie, see if she can make some to-go that you could pick up and eat together on a video call. If you enjoy watching your favorite holiday movie with your siblings, schedule a time to watch simultaneously and group chat about it. No, it won’t be exactly the same as other holidays, but for this year, it can work.

“We’re not trying to convince anyone that this is as good as being there, but we do need to keep in mind that we can do this for a year,” Bilderback said.

Set boundaries

Entering into the holiday season, individuals should look at their own risk factors and know what situations they are comfortable with. If you choose to go to a gathering believing everyone will wear a mask and adhere to social distancing, you may arrive to find that’s not the case. If so, don’t be afraid to leave. Your boundaries are a personal choice, and you have a right to make them.

To make things easier, it can help to have a frank discussion with your families about your boundaries before gathering, Bilderback said. Not only will this help you to understand each other’s needs, but it can also help you plan ahead and not find yourself in an uncomfortable situation.

“I have pulmonary problems, so I’m high risk,” she said. “In any gathering, I tell people I want to be outside and I take masks very seriously, and I explain why.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

When people become depressed, serotonin levels in the brain decrease. Once that happens, Bilderback said, it is hard for your body to increase those levels on its own. That’s where medication may help.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor if you feel that your holiday blues seem heavier than normal.

“There’s nothing wrong with seeking help, just like we seek help for other things,” she said. “If you regularly get holiday blues, and this year they’re really bad, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor.”