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Holidays ‘full of love and connection’: UW psychologist offers tips for celebrating the season during COVID-19

University of Washington
15-Dec-2020 4:30 PM EST, by University of Washington

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or none of the above, how you spend the holiday season likely will look different during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gatherings of family and friends are discouraged. Many community events have gone virtual, or have been scrapped altogether. The warmth and celebration – not to mention the anticipation of a new year – can feel halfhearted.

But by being intentional about how we approach and experience the season, we can find joy, and recognize – even embrace – how we’ve weathered this year.

“We have learned a lot about how to adapt to the pandemic that can help people have a meaningful holiday season,” said Jonathan Kanter, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington who is leading local and national studies of how people have been coping with quarantines and isolation. “It is possible that, because of the restrictions of the pandemic, we may be able to find and experience the true spirit of the holiday season with even more clarity.

“It may not be the most fun break ever, but it can still be meaningful and full of love and connection.”

As restrictions continue and a return to what might be termed “normalcy” still months away, now is the time for resolve and reflection, Kanter said. The stress of the year has showed us our own resiliency; now, facing the winter holidays and the new year involves applying what we’ve learned: patience, hope, flexibility and purpose.

“Make room for uncomfortable feelings and pain; don’t run from them. Look for gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. Take care of each other,” he said. “If anything, this pandemic has taught us how important it is to do the basic things in life well and to not get too caught up in all the distractions. Focus on what matters – our health and our relationships.”

Kanter, director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection, offered UW News some suggestions for a healthy and, yes, happy, holiday season.


The holidays often involve gathering with friends and family – at parties, events or in homes. How do we capture the celebratory spirit, given social distancing guidelines?

For many of us, this pandemic has taught us that we are stronger than we might think. We have incredible capacity to adapt to our evolving context, even if it brings a lot of stress. Our brains may tell us that we can't keep going, but in fact we as human beings are built by nature to keep going. We wake up each morning and do the best we can. We learn, we change and we adapt.

Second, the pandemic has taught us that, while we may not be able to socialize with as many people as we did previously, it is the quality of the social interactions that matters. These unusual, stressful and painful times are reminding many of us how important our relationships are in our lives, and the holidays are a perfect opportunity to share with others how much we care about them. People who have experienced grief and loss during this pandemic may need this even more than others.

I know this sounds corny, but now is the time to express your love for those you care about. Together, look through old family albums and videos. Recollect your favorite shared memories. Remind each other about their qualities that you love, the things they have done for you in the past, how you appreciate them. We all want to be seen and understood for who we are and who we want to be. Let them know that you see them and how you really feel. That is what the holidays are about.


What if people are simply feeling down?

It is hard to know what to recommend, because different people need different things. But hopefully a few reminders are helpful: Stay as active as possible even if your plans fell apart. Keep up your routines, keep up exercise, and get outdoors, even in bad weather. Socialize in all possible safe ways. Find those closest to you and talk about how you really feel, even if it is a little depressing. Feeling down is bad, but feeling down and alone is worse.

Look for small, restorative moments, like how your hands feel when washing them under warm water. Several times a day, breathe slowly and fully for 30 seconds and reconnect with your body. Going back to these basics is essential. They won’t make all the bad feelings go away, but they might be enough for you to find some stability, find yourself, keep you going and keep you engaged with those around you.


How do we get over our disappointment about traditions that can’t happen this year?

There are opportunities for fun and joy, even now. It is OK to find relief in simple pleasures. We have so many inspiring examples throughout this pandemic of people overcoming the obstacles and connecting in safe ways, from Italians singing to each other on balconies to virtual happy hours to musicians putting together virtual bands. There is strength, innovation, creativity and inspiration all around us, even now.


Are there other ways to rethink how we ’do’ the holidays?

I hope people can find and express what speaks to their personal values. For me – and I know for many others – the true spirit of the holidays is about giving to and supporting others. This year, such giving and supporting others in need is more important than ever. There are so many ways to give: donating time, food, clothing or money to charities, reaching out to friends or family, or simply expressing thanks and gratitude to those who have helped you. Some communities and businesses have been hit much harder by the pandemic than others. I recommend intentionally doing all we can to support these groups during this season, and beyond. Research suggests, by the way, that such giving is restorative and nurturing of our own mental health and well-being as much as it helps others.


The new year is traditionally a time when we think about things we want to change. How should we approach thinking about the new year?

The goals we set for 2021 undoubtedly will be shaped by all the changes, losses and stressors of 2020. It is super important to be flexible when thinking about goals: Your 2021 goals likely will be different, and less ambitious, than were your 2020 goals. Adapting to changing circumstances with new goals is crucial in preventing depression. Last year you may have wanted to join a gym; this year it may be enough to get outside more regularly.

That said, identifying goals may be the easy part; following through is harder. Psychological research shows that there are things we can do to make follow-through more likely. Here are some evidence-based tips for completing goals that certainly apply to this unusual year:

  • Find a friend with whom you can check in once a week on your goals, and hold or each other accountable, with gentle compassion.
  • Consider one-month goals rather than a whole year – those that are challenging enough to feel a sense of accomplishment, but not so hard that they feel overwhelming. And consider setting a goal of simply starting. Sometimes starting is the hardest part.
  • Don’t be embarrassed by being really visible with your efforts. Put reminders to stay on track all over your living or work spaces. Write in these reminders what you plan to do, and why it is important to you.
  • Finally, have compassion for yourself if you lapse a little. Lapses are OK, but if you are really hard on yourself when you lapse, then you’re more likely to quit entirely. Let yourself be imperfect, wake up the next morning, remind yourself of your goals, and try again.



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