The Year for New Traditions

This year could pose unique challenges for even the jolliest, most holiday-loving among us. YAM looks to the experts for tips on how to navigate the 2020 Holiday Season and create new traditions.

By Carolyn Camilleri | Sourced Imagery

Even in a regular year, not everyone looks forward to the holiday season for too many reasons to list. But 2020 is far from being a regular year, and many people are struggling.

“People are not at their most resilient; many are fearful, frustrated and lonely,” says Marney Thompson, a registered clinical counsellor (RCC) and director of the counselling team at Victoria Hospice. “There has been an increase in depression, substance use and poor health as many people have struggled with the lack of face-to-face contact and faced new barriers to accessing appropriate health care.”

Being with people and sharing experiences are part of how humans replenish and rebuild — vital human connections that often happen during the holidays. This year, some of those connections aren’t going to happen.

“Others will be learning and creating new ways to carry on important traditions that help to maintain a sense of meaningful connection
to family, friends and community,” says Thompson.

“It takes energy — motivation, creative thinking, hope — and many of us are already running on empty and lacking the fuel to think through and keep pace with these ongoing and necessary adjustments.”

It’s a lot to cope with, but there are ways to make it more manageable.

Recognize Your Losses

While we may feel fortunate if we haven’t lost any loved ones in 2020, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a right to feel grief.

“Everyone you encounter, as you are going about your life now, is grieving any number of losses as a result of COVID-19,” says Michelle Iulianella, a Victoria RCC who works with individuals and couples on relationship issues and life transitions. “No one has been immune to the innumerable losses and emotional impacts that this pandemic has brought into our lives.”

Every primary loss comes with a trail of unique and no less impactful secondary losses with emotional, cognitive and physical effects. For example, a job loss also comes with the loss of financial certainty, social connections, routine and purpose. Lockdowns, school closures, changes to daily routines, separation from family and friends, cancelled trips, isolation — you get the idea.

Processing loss is messy and non-linear.

“Sadness, anger, fear and denial — it’s all completely normal for any and all of it to show up this holiday season,” says Iulianella.

Recognize that you are grieving your own losses and be gentle with yourself, and give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel — because it is normal.

Holiday Relationship Tips

This year people in intimate relationships will need to talk about what each person is comfortable with, regarding holiday traditions.

“Social pressure and expectations from family and friends around getting together is a source of anxiety and interpersonal distress and is increasing as we move closer to the holidays,” says Michelle Iulianella, a registered clinical counsellor (RCC) in Victoria who works with individuals and couples on relationship issues and life transitions.

“Taking the time to talk to each other about what each person is comfortable with saying yes or no to will reduce anxiety and potentially avoid the type of conflict that comes with navigating holiday socializing.”

It is also important to engage your partner in conversations about how you are really feeling about the holiday season this year.

“Think of time spent discussing things like changes in holiday spending, budgeting, gifts, travel plans and socializing with your partner as a true gift to each other,” says Iulianella. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to connect with your partner … while creating a shared vision of what the holidays can look and feel like this year.”

Give Your Brain A Rest

David Segal and Kathryn Rose, RCCs and cofounders of Human-Nature Counselling Society, remind us that human beings are amazing at adapting to changing circumstances. But when change occurs too rapidly, too frequently or with too much severity, we are susceptible to chronic stress responses that make us vulnerable: Am I safe? Who can I count on? What will happen to me and my loved ones? How can I do the things that normally help me to de-stress?

It’s easy to get caught up in a vicious negative cycle that makes everything worse. Segal suggests focusing on messages of safety — for example “I’m wearing this mask to keep my community safe” versus “I need this mask to protect me from the deadly virus.”

“By focusing on what you are doing to keep yourself safe and grounded, versus all the dangers, you give your brain a chance to rest from a world full of threats,” he says.

The same applies to holiday season stress. Instead of adding more pressure,
try to focus on the parts of the holidays that mean the most to you and find ways to look forward to what you can do.

“We suggest taking a break from the aspects of the holiday season that may add more stress — be it cooking the perfect meal or buying all the latest presents — and ask for permission from loved ones to have a holiday season that focuses on the parts that really matter,” says Rose.

She adds that fewer holiday parties due to COVID-19 restrictions also means more time to relax, nest into your home and practice the self-care we are meant to do in the hibernating time of winter: long hot baths, reading books in PJs, cooking warming soups, taking quiet walks outside, etc.

“This season could actually be less stressful for some people, due to the slower social schedule and less expectations to attend all the events and shopping malls,” says Rose.

Turn to Nature

“Turning toward your connection with nature and tuning into your sense of self, as belonging to nature, can soothe your nerves and help with feelings of overwhelm and being alone,” says Kathryn Rose, registered clinical counsellor (RCC) and cofounder with David Segal (RCC) of Human-Nature Counselling Society.

The key is to nurture a genuine relationship with nature. Rose and Segal offer some tips to help you get the most from your outdoor time.

Develop your own relationship with nature: Visit nearby beaches, forests and trails that bring a sense of ease and calm. Take a trip down memory lane and revisit some of your childhood experiences in nature. Learn about your local ecosystem, the cultural history and stories of the land and the First Peoples who, for thousands of years, were stewards and who continue to build cultures where land is considered sacred. Connect your children to nature by nurturing your own relationship with nature and sharing the inspiration.

Cultivate playfulness: Play is tonic for stressed nervous systems. Next time you are on a walk in PKOLS (Mount Doug), Beaver Lake Park or Francis/King Park, initiate a game of hide-and- seek or camouflage — or ask your kids: they will certainly have some games they are excited to teach you. Playing games helps you to slow down and turn your outing into more of an adventure.

Develop your sensory awareness: Find ways to “lose your mind and find your senses” by tuning into the forest sounds, smells, textures and sights.
For children, set up a nature scavenger hunt where they have to find things they can touch, see, smell and hear to encourage present-moment engagement. Look for beautiful spots along the path to pause for five minutes of silence to notice how many different sounds you can hear.

Or get down on the ground together to notice the diversity of tiny mosses on the forest floor. Better yet: lay down gently on the moss and gaze up at the sky and treetops for a while.

Bond with a favourite nature place: Develop a strong connection to a local natural place by visiting frequently throughout the year. By returning to the same place, you meet and learn about the neighbourhood creatures who frequent the spot at different times of the day and year.

Bring a journal and draw a map along with a species inventory; use the Audubon Bird Guide App to try your hand at bird identification. Having someone to tell your story of the day to can add to the experience.

Go on an adventure: The negative impacts of chronic stress are well known, but a positive type of stress — known as eustress — is talked about less often. Essentially, when we are faced with a challenge and are willingly motivated to overcome it, we feel a sense of aliveness and pride. Hiking to a lookout, building a shelter or following animal tracks in order to identify what they belong to and find out where the animal lives are all good options.

Get Real with Your Expectations

If your pre-2020 expectations for the holidays tended to be on the high side, here is your chance to reset them.

“Holding to hard and fast expectations of how our own particular holiday season is supposed to look and feel inevitably sets us up for failure this year — and every year, for that matter,” says Iulianella.

“The meals, the gifts, the gatherings, the trips, all the magical moments we yearn for can often fall short, not because of any personal failing, but because reality seldom lives up to the unchecked holiday fantasy.”

Moreover, we are supposed to enjoy the festive season.

“The societal pressure to be happy or joyous can magnify underlying distress, sadness and pain,” says Marney Thompson. “The societal expectation is to be with those you love, and if those people aren’t accessible — due to distance, estrangement, illness or death — feelings of grief, loneliness and isolation often intensify.”

Letting go of your expectations may come as a relief.

“Being really honest with yourself about what you have historically expected your holidays to look and feel like pre-COVID-19 can be really enlightening because it can uncover hidden sources of profound and toxic levels of stress and anxiety that you are bringing into this and every holiday season,” says Iulianella.

She offers an exercise you can do alone or out loud with someone you trust. Start by just playing with the idea of giving yourself permission to accept — or at least to get on the path to acceptance because it’s no small feat — that this year, the holidays will look and feel different.

“Writing or talking about how this holiday season will be different, due to the pandemic early on, will be really helpful in diffusing the negative thoughts and emotions, not to mention the ways these manifest physically, before things become overwhelming,” says Iulianella.

What About The Kids?

Children and youth are certainly not immune from the stressors
of our uncertain world. They are constantly looking to their attachment figures — i.e., their parents — to gauge whether they are safe and if the situations being faced are manageable. A secure attachment figure allows children to have a safe harbour in which to seek refuge from the storms of life.

“However, if parents are having trouble finding their own emotional balance in these turbulent times, this may lead to insecurity in their children and, as a result, higher rates of anxiety, depression, sleep and eating changes, social difficulties and learning challenges,” says David Segal, registered clinical counsellor (RCC) and cofounder of Human-Nature Counselling Society.

“Dr. Sue Johnson, the developer of emotion-focused therapy, has long purported the importance of creating and sustaining secure bonds between people as a way to navigate challenges. In fact, a common quote of hers is ‘To suffer is inevitable, but to suffer alone is intolerable.’ ”

Thus, Segal’s first step for parents is to ask yourself how you are doing and who you can turn to for support and emotional balance. Once that is established, then ensure you can be a secure base for your children.

“We recognize this is not an easy task and that, at times, parents will lose their emotional balance due to the demands being so great,” says Segal. “The main point is that ensuring the physical safety of your children is important but so is attending to their emotional well- being.”

He adds, “Being emotionally available and present cannot be overemphasized as a vital aspect of supporting your children through these difficult times.”

Segal and Human-Nature Counselling cofounder, Kathryn Rose, recommend reading The Whole-Brain Child, The Power of Showing Up and No-Drama Discipline by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, who emphasize the importance of emotional connection as the starting place for engaging with your children, especially in stressful times.

“Their popular phrase ‘connect and then redirect’ has been a staple of our parenting tool box for many years now,” says Segal. “Humans are way more capable of thinking clearly and finding solutions once they are feeling heard and safe.”

People are often afraid to allow themselves negative emotions about the holiday season, feeling that it’s somehow inappropriate.

“This holiday season, the sadness, anger and anxiety related to living during a pandemic all need to be acknowledged as much as the positive feelings that arise, so they aren’t hanging around below the surface,” says Iulianella. “This alone can help alleviate that feeling of ever-present anxiety that often we don’t notice until we are forced to.”

Find What Works For You

Since this year is going to be different anyway, maybe you can just let it be different. Take some time to reflect on how you are actually doing — take a walk, talk with someone you trust or write it out.

“What you find when you get really honest with yourself is going to be your guide — illuminate the path, so to speak — for what you really need to do for yourself going into and getting through the holidays,” says Iulianella.

Maybe you are grieving the loss of celebration and holiday traditions.

“Thinking creatively about potential new traditions for this unique holiday season, then taking action to make them a reality are positive, purposeful and meaningful action steps that allow one to feel empowered in the face of uncertainty,” says Iulianella. “This can also serve as an important antidote to the kind of situational depression and anxiety that COVID-19 has created for so many.”

It’s also an opportunity to reflect on why you were following those traditions in the first place and to make some changes.

“With all of the changes that COVID-19 has thrust upon us in 2020, this holiday season could be the perfect opportunity to try out new, perhaps more meaningful, traditions that may better align with your values now, while still honouring the holiday practices and traditions that remain important to you,” says Iulianella.

Coping with a Loss

If you have lost a loved one during this turbulent year, the first holiday season without them may be especially hard.

“One of the challenges we hear about the most is how the holiday season spotlights the absence of the person who died and intensifies grief,” says Marney Thompson, registered clinical counsellor (RCC) and director of the counselling team at Victoria Hospice. “Often there are significant holiday activities that the person who died took care of, or it may be that the person who died was the one who loved the holidays and made them feel special or tolerable.”

In Victoria Hospice holiday workshops for families, counsellors help people identify what they are most concerned about — often fearing or dreading — and then they explore and suggest ways to mitigate these concerns.

Some strategies include:

  • Make a plan in advance: Often the anticipation is harder than the day itself.
  • Allow the plan to change, if needed: Needs and energy can shift, seemingly out of the blue, and people who thought they’d want to be alone, may suddenly wish to be with others and vice versa.
  • Honour the person who died in some way: Attend a memorial service, light a candle, make a special dish, donate to a cause or charity the person cared about.
  • Give yourself permission to feel however you feel: Sometimes people are surprised to discover they like being social or feel guilty about having a good time or for being sad.
  • Modify traditions as needed: For example, if the person who died decorated the tree, and it feels too painful to step into that role, it’s okay to ask others to help or to do it in a different way — or to skip that task this year.
  • Remember this is a learning process: Traditions can be reinstituted next year.

Go Easy on Yourself

While it may feel more normal to put pressure on yourself in the weeks leading up to the holidays, give yourself a break this year. After all, we aren’t out of the woods yet.

“The pandemic is ongoing, numbers are on the rise, people are afraid and struggling to grapple with ongoing uncertainty. I think it’s tone-deaf to talk about healing,” says Thompson. “One of our national leaders in palliative care said during a COVID grief presentation: ‘It’s not the ideal, but it’s the real.’ I think this is the best grounding for how to approach this time.”

Iulianella reminds us to choose gratitude: “I fully acknowledge that this is a sentiment that has been grossly overused, but here’s why it’s really important to work on actually living from a place of gratitude this holiday season: it is the fast track to greater satisfaction and contentment in our lives, regardless of our current circumstances.”

Remembering that we get to choose how we respond to situations beyond our control has never been so important, she adds.

“As we all move through this season and bravely face a new year, it is the perfect time to remember our own innate ability to take a deep breath and choose how we will respond to whatever comes up for us this holiday season in a way that creates peace and contentment for ourselves.”

Take a deep breath, and choose what feels right for you.