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COVID Adds More Stress to Already-Stressed Holidays

The holidays are often a stressful time for many people, as well as a time for friends and family.  But this year is different, say two USC experts:  the normal holiday stress can be accelerated by the presence of COVID fears.
Eric Mesa [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
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The holidays can be a double-edged sword:  they certainly are, for most, a time of joy and togetherness with family and friends.  But for many, they can also be a time of stress, even depression.  A new element this year can increase the load of  "normal" holiday stress:  fears about the COVID pandemic.

Dr. Sue Heiney, a University of South Carolina nursing professor with a specialty in psychosocial care, reviewed a typical holiday situation for family gatherings which is now being made more difficult by COVID worries:

"How do I entertain if I'm the hostess or the host, how do I entertain safely?  To do that there are extra things  that have to be done.  And then worrying about who's coming that might be at risk.  And that could be anyone with an autoimmune disorder.  An older family member, maybe grandma or grandpa, or Aunt Lucy or whoever."

Because this is a new phenomenon, Heiney said a term such as "COVID stress" would not be common yet, but that "you've definitely got the stress that eminates from the threat of COVID, from knowing that people have died from COVID, from being worried about getting it yourself."

USC psychologist Dr. Cheryl Armstead has borrowed from Aretha Franklin's hit "Respect" to compile what she calls the "REE-REE" holiday stress formula.  It includes respecting the risks of travel and large family holiday gatherings, as well as the benefits of mask wearing and social distancing.  According to Armstead, much holiday stress is based on "shouldas, wouldas and couldas."   Or, "what we should be doing for the holidays, what we would be doing for the holidays if COVID hadn't hit, and what we could do for the holidays in the wake of COVID. "

Another "Ree" is re-evaluating and rewinding.  "And re-evaluating and rewinding means that you mindfully focus on what are some of the things that are negotiable" about dealing with the stress of COVID.  If some things can be re-arranged or skipped, the stress also may be avoided, she said, and new expectations developed.

Armstead advises people to re-think big gatherings this year to avoid that added COVID stress, but to make it clear that love and respect for others is behind these decisions.  "One of the things I hear people talk about is 'Grandma is getting on in years and she might not be here for another Christmas.' Well, if you want to ensure that Grandma's not gonna be here for another Christmas," engage in reckless behavior, she said.  "Have a large gathering, don't wear a mask, don't hand wash, don't social distance and don't do the COVID quarantine before your holiday visit."   Of course, the professor urges the exact opposite, to promote safety among families and gatherings. 

So, what can people do to deal with the stress brought on by COVID?  As with any other form of stress, Heiney offered some simple but time-tested advice.  "Get out and walk or some other form of exercise.  That's the best way to metabolize the adrenaline that is one of the first hormones that starts flipping out.  And walking in nature is even better, because there's something in nature that helps people.  Walk in place, do some exercizes, do something that will use up energy."

Heiney said in these stressful times in which COVID has kept people apart, remaining connected to people is critical.  "The physical isolation is bad enough, but the social isolation and the lack of social connection is really damaging.  And so figuring out ways to keep socially connected is really important."

Armstead added that virtual gatherings and other uses of technology may even lead to new traditions for keeping up with family and friends at remote locations.