“A very Merry Christmas and a happy new year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.”
Despite John Lennon’s best intentions, this Christmas may not be such a good one. It is unlikely to be lived without any fear. Many of us are having to come to terms with the fact that we will not be with our extended families. As 2020 closes, we are still reeling from the collective trauma of Covid-19.
We’ve been locked down, set free and locked down again. Some of us lost loved ones to Covid-19 while others lived in fear that we might. Place your bets on what comes next. It doesn’t feel like we’re off to Lapland. It’s more like living in limbo land.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel very seasonal given so many of us have been forced to undertake a risk-benefit analysis of Christmas. Does the benefit of being together as a family outweigh the risk of killing Granny?
I think we can be forgiven for asking whether this is the season to be jolly or should we just write this one off?
As a psychotherapist to clients in Monaco and around the world, here’s my take on the psychological impact of the pandemic and a handful of seasonal, survival tips.
Studies of past pandemics such as SARS and Ebola confirm psychological reactions such as panic, depression, loneliness, anxiety, stress, grief, anxiety and PTSD as common. In other words, it’s unsurprising if you are not feeling in the Christmas spirit.
Collective traumas can alter the fabric of our societies and nations. That’s how much is at stake currently. When events like wars and natural disasters occur, we may experience an existential identity crisis, individually and/or collectively. We question society. We become hyper-vigilant to the threats arounds us, real and imagined.
What adds to the confusion is that we are all experiencing the pandemic collectively yet our responses are different and we often feel guilty that our response isn’t normal.
The Psychological Impact of Covid-19
We are in the early stages of understanding the psychological impact of COVID-19. One of the most recent studies has identified several common psychological reactions to the pandemic. Those include intense and uncontrolled fear related to infection, pervasive anxiety, frustration, boredom, and disabling loneliness.
As one client said to me recently, “Well when you put it like that, my stress makes sense.” None of us should underestimate the devastating impact of any one of these reactions. Many are experiencing a combination of them all.
I’ve written previously about pandemic fatigue. We are overwhelmed with fatigue. Whether it’s fatigue from home schooling, media overload, zoom meetings, financial fears, health fears, we’re bloody worn out. When worn out, our capacity to withstand life’s challenges is inevitably diminished.
Not all families are on the same seasonal page. Some of us want to be together over Christmas and Covid-19 be damned while others feel safer staying apart. At a time when families usually come together, we’re divided.
I’ve seen many families in a state of conflict over how and where to spend the holidays. One client told me that their family (who live in three different European countries) had a family meeting online in order to determine the lockdown laws in each of the three jurisdictions. She felt that resolving Brexit would have been easier.
Bah humbug. Many of my clients don’t want to risk feeling hopeful about the vaccine yet. Coping with the possibility of uncertainty or more disappointment feels too difficult. For them, the vaccine is a tease especially as most of them don’t know when they will be eligible.
The vaccine is like waiting for the next season of our favourite Netflix series. You know it’s coming but you don’t know when. We don’t allow ourselves to get hopeful in case the next series is cancelled!
What’s my point?
My point is that we can be forgiven for struggling with our mental health this Christmas. It doesn’t mean that we can’t be jolly (good for you if you are feeling in the festive spirit) but it is likely to be bittersweet for many.
My 5 Christmas Survival Tips
- Acknowledge your mental health. (Hint: if someone was taking a movie of you recently, what would they notice?). Once you have acknowledged your primary emotions, what might you need this holiday period? Some time alone or more support? If you had a cold over Christmas, you might let your friends and family visiting know. Do the people around you know your mental health?
- Set Boundaries. What will make you feel safe this Christmas? How can you be true to yourself and stay within your integrity? We need to communicate with our loved ones in advance of being together what our expectations are. Do you require social distancing inside the house? Maybe it’s not acceptable for Cousin Johnny to step off a plane and into your living-room? Is hugging ok? Boundaries are hard to set because we risk disappointing people. (The author and researcher Brené Brown describes a boundary as what is okay and not okay for you).
- Seek REAL connection. As infants, our brains malfunction if we are deprived of social connection. There will be a handful of people in your life that have touched you. Those are the ones to reach to this Christmas whether or not you will be together. If any are deceased, try writing them a letter and reflect. We need to share our reality with the people that matter the most.
- Make Zoom better. If you are having part of your Christmas on zoom, what might create an opportunity for deeper connection or some shared meaning? Have you thought about having a structure so that everyone takes turns to talk about what’s happening in their lives rather than the awkward free for all zoom session? Have you thought about introducing some games? (If you could visit any person in history, who would it be and why?). I know one family who will be cooking together over zoom.
(The challenge with family zoom sessions is by the time Grandma and Grandpa have got the sound switched on and you are no longer looking at their nasal hair, the session is over).
- Go with the flow. There is often an expectation of what Christmas “should” be. That’s tough enough in the best of times. Christmas 2020 will be like no other. Perhaps our challenge is not to fixate on the past or dwell on the future but to be present for this holiday season, whatever it turns out to be like. I’ve never fully understood what “leaning into” something means but it feels like the right phrase here! Can we lean into this Christmas and give ourselves permission to experience it as is, without judgment?
We all want to know when things will return to normal. Perhaps our greatest hope lies in the fact that things will not return to normal but that they will get better. Perhaps we will have learned more about what we value in our relationships and lives as a result of the pandemic and be bolder in seeking those changes.
I am hopeful that from the collective trauma will come a mindful, collective awakening. Wishing good health and happiness to all as we awaken and turn the corner into 2021.
(This article first appeared in Monaco Life.)