4 Tips For Navigating Thanksgiving and COVID-19

Coping with the holidays is stressful enough without the continued threat of COVID. Here's how to approach Thanksgiving 2021 whether you're celebrating with family or by yourself.

Dr. Monica Johnson
5-minute read
Episode #368
The Quick And Dirty

Navigating the holidays is stressful enough—and now you're adding COVID on top of it! While we were encouraged not to celebrate with people outside our household in 2020, this year will look a lot different. First, you'll want to accurate assess your level of COVID comfort. Then, regardless of whether you're traveling to see family or staying home, learn to cope ahead and to rehearse difficult conversations. And don't make the mistake of waiting too late to reach out for support if you need it.

I lived in New York City for the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I have to say: saying the initial few months were rough is an understatement. If you weren't an essential worker (big thanks to all of you out there), you sheltered in place. We didn't go outside for anything other than groceries, the pharmacy, and the occasional socially-distanced walk or run. And, given the massive surge last winter, many of us missed traveling for the holidays with our families.

It was stressful! And while today, we live in a world where COVID is ever-present, we are encouraged to approach life in this new normal, and that's a whole different kind of stress.

Now it's the holidays again and there are tough decisions to make. Mainly: should I stay, or should I go?

You might be asking yourself: do I want to face a potentially angry mask-less passenger on a plane and my uncle with undiagnosed and untreated alcoholism? Or maybe you're thinking: how do I go through another holiday flying solo? No matter your situation, I'm here with four tips to help you through this holiday season in the new normal.

1. Accurately assess your level of COVID comfort

This is something that I have consistently asked my patients to consider throughout this entire pandemic. You can rate this on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being "I haven’t left my apartment since March 2020" and 10 being "I routinely go to large underground parties with no windows, no light, and no vaccine requirements."

Depending on where you fall, list out the activities that you think feel safe. For instance, I’m pretty moderate. I am fully vaccinated, and I don’t wear a mask when I’m outside in the park for my run, but I do wear a mask indoors when I’m shopping. I have yet to go on a plane since the pandemic, but I am considering it as there are friends and family that I'd like to visit next year. Music festivals and other large-scale events are still a no-go for me.

Whatever your comfort zone, don’t judge it. It’s important to be honest in this assessment.

When I think about my comfort zone, I consider my mental and physical health, as well as public safety. I’m not a zero on the scale because being totally isolated at this point in the pandemic doesn’t appear to be justified given that I don’t have an underlying medical condition that would expose me to increased risk. Plus, I’m fully vaccinated and follow masking guidelines. However, I’m not a 10 because with the new variants it seems like too much risk for too little reward. But that’s just my assessment for me! You need to think about what's important to you, and how comfortable you feel.

2. Cope ahead

Whether you're preparing for travel or preparing to be home alone, you want to cope ahead. Think about the potential challenges and explore what skills and solutions you can brainstorm to deal with those challenges.

For instance, when preparing for air travel, think through what it will be like to be in close quarters with several strangers. You may also want to prepare for a person who could be potentially hostile due to COVID mandates. Relaxation and mindfulness meditation can definitely help reduce stress before and during travel. Bring items to support your comfort, whether it's for sleeping or distraction on the plane. This can include eye masks, neck pillows, a blanket, puzzle books, reading material, phone games you can play offline, or downloading shows to binge-watch.

7 Ways to I.M.P.R.O.V.E. Difficult Moments

If you’re going to be at home, the problems may look different. You will have to cope ahead for potential loneliness or judgments from family members who feel differently than you do about COVID. I encourage you to be careful with all or nothing thinking that can arise in this situation.

I’ve had patients in the past who were dealing with circumstances that they didn’t choose, and have doubled down on making themselves feel horrible. Loneliness doesn’t feel good, but you don’t have to suffer through it. I can tell you with full confidence that you’re not alone in your loneliness. Be creative in finding solace or connection. Create a playlist of your favorite Thanksgiving movies. Connect with friends online, or strangers who share your interests. I routinely chat and watch horror movies online with some of my closest friends. You can also explore online communities on Discord or Twitch where I am sure you will find others who are either alone for the holidays or have had their fill of both turkey and their family.

3. Rehearse difficult conversations

If you’re going home for the holidays, you may have to deal with some probing questions or uncomfortable moments with family. Why aren’t you married yet? When are you and your partner going to have children? What are your thoughts on this political topic?

You may have woefully behind-the-times family members who refuse to use the correct pronouns or keep deadnaming you. Are you in an interracial relationship? Then there’s a chance you might run into a few microaggressions. As a person who has dated in a racially broad fashion in my life, I could make you cringe with the colorful dialogue I’ve had to encounter over a slice of pie. If you’re staying home by choice, others might question your decision or make you feel shame in some way.

I suggest writing out a script for the questions or comments that are most likely to come up. This will allow you to practice your response and reduce the likelihood of getting overwhelmed by emotions. When we are overwhelmed, we can say things more harshly than we intend or give up on boundaries that are actually important to us.

Let me tell you, if you don’t rehearse beforehand, you will definitely rehearse afterward. You will spend hours or days replaying the conversation back to yourself and thinking of all the things you wish you had said differently. Practice is always practical. It’s also okay to set limits on the situations that bring you discomfort. You don’t have to stay at your mom’s place all day or listen to your dad berate you on the phone for 2 hours.

4. Tell people you need support

For some of us, the holidays take a toll on our mental health due to the winter weather, darkness, or grief related to family or friends that we have lost.

Out yourself! Let people know that you are hurting and need support during this time. The mistake that people often make is that they reach out at the last minute. If you send a text to someone at 3 in the morning, you are setting yourself up to feel alone as most people are going to be asleep.

While it won’t feel like it in the moment, avoiding alcohol and drugs will actually help things go a lot more smoothly. Drugs and alcohol make us more irrational, erratic, and impulsive, none of which is good in combination with feeling hurt. Plus, alcohol, a common go-to, is a downer. Drinking when you’re already feeling pretty bad is like tying a cinder block to your leg when you’re trying to stay afloat.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.