November 15, 2021

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Caitlin Harper

How To Navigate The Holidays During COVID-19

As we head into another holiday season with the pandemic hanging over our heads, what to do somehow seems less clear than ever. Setting boundaries and communicating them well are two important tools in your tool belt for navigating any social setting, and they are even more important when times are tough. Here are a few tips, with input from our therapists, about how to navigate the holidays, especially during COVID-19.

As we head into another holiday season with the pandemic hanging over our heads, what to do somehow seems less clear than ever. With the COVID-19 vaccine now widely available to more and more age groups, some people are eager to gather or travel for the holidays while others are more inclined to spend the time alone or stick to virtual celebrations. But there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for how to spend the holidays.

Of course, decisions about whether or not to gather for the holidays predate COVID-19. School, work, time, distance, family situations, finances, and more can all factor into whether or not someone decides to gather for the holidays or not.

Setting boundaries and communicating them well are two important tools in your tool belt for navigating any social setting, and they are even more important when times are tough. Here are a few tips, with input from our therapists, about how to navigate the holidays, especially during COVID-19.

Know what your boundaries are when it comes to holiday gatherings

Setting boundaries is often “the biggest part of the holidays any year, but especially now with the changes COVID-19 has created,” said Lily Ostler, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Setting boundaries can be incredibly difficult, as family members or people in our lives often feel attacked or harmed by them.”

While setting boundaries is hard, it’s not all about restrictions. Boundaries are about what makes you comfortable and safe—and it’s important to ask about and consider the boundaries of other people also.

“First, it is important to remind yourself you are allowed to set boundaries and that these are an effort of maintaining a relationship with someone so that it can be healthy and sustainable,” Lily said. “Next, take time to think through what matters to you and what you are or aren't comfortable with. Journaling can be a useful tool for this.” She says to ask yourself:

  • If I am vaccinated, am I comfortable being around unvaccinated people?
  • Am I comfortable sharing my vaccination status?
  • Are there safety precautions that matter to me?

“It's no secret that vaccination has become a politically loaded hot-button issue over the past several months,” said Daniel Sieber, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “When conveying your concerns to friends or relatives, it is important to set boundaries around discussing safety, since it is easy for it to turn into an ideological debate.”

When relying on sources to make your decisions or explain your reasoning, use reputable ones

If we’ve learned one thing in the last few years, it’s that our lives are in a constant state of change. Adapting to the change can be hard, especially when guidelines and restrictions are updated regularly and not everyone agrees on what is best.

“While being vaccinated may provide a greater sense of relief around holiday gatherings than last year, there is still much uncertainty about everyday safety protocol,” said Daniel.

“Some who are vaccinated remain as cautious as they were during the height of the pandemic due to continued risk around the variants, where others may have returned to their pre-pandemic lifestyles. It is important not to assume that everyone who is vaccinated has been conducting themselves in the same manner as you.”

It’s important to stay safe, but it’s also important to nurture your relationships and connect with the ones you love. When considering what you might do, as well as how you might discuss your plans and decisions with others, relying on high-quality sources is important. It’s possible to balance what you need to do for your mental health with what you want to do to maintain your physical health.

Loneliness was already an American epidemic before COVID-19, with more than half of Americans reporting loneliness pre-pandemic. In addition, many adults say worry or stress related to the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.

Many people haven’t seen family and friends as much as they would have over the past few years and while it might be easy to simply say, “don’t travel if you don’t want to,” as with most things, it’s easier said than done.

The CDC provides guidance on safer ways to celebrate the holidays that they update regularly:

  • Wear well-fitting masks over your nose and mouth if you are in public indoor settings if you are not fully vaccinated
  • Even those who are fully vaccinated should wear a mask in public indoor settings in communities with substantial to high transmission
  • You might choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission if a member of your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.
  • Outdoors is safer than indoors
  • Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces
  • If you are sick or have symptoms, don’t host or attend a gathering
  • Get tested if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have a close contact with someone who has COVID-19

Landing on someone’s doorstep and being surprised that they don’t share your pandemic practices is not the way to go! It can be even more stressful if you’re playing the host. The list of things to consider goes beyond vaccines and masks:

  • If people are traveling, are they expected to get tested or quarantine?
  • Will there be outdoor gatherings or distance expected indoors?
  • Will food be served a certain way to avoid crowds at buffets or tables?
  • Are guests allowed to stay overnight or should they find alternate lodging?
  • Are guests expected to attend a single gathering or mingle with a single group on the holiday or during the holiday period?

“Once you've sorted out your own wants, needs, and feelings, then you can begin to communicate them,” Lily said.

Communicate your expectations before holiday events or travel, if possible

“Have a clear sense of what your comfort level is before committing to plans,” Daniel Sieber, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Explain your concerns to the host and inquire about their safety measures.” And if you’re the host, ask your guests about their plans and share your own.

If you can discuss expectations and behavior early on, everyone can be on the same page about ground rules for masks and other safety measures, or at least know what one another’s boundaries are.

“Often, starting a boundary setting with a positive statement reaffirming your care can be beneficial,” Lily said. Here are some options she suggests:

  • I am so sorry to miss X party or X holiday gathering. I love you (or something positive), however I am not comfortable being in the same space as unvaccinated adults. Thank you for your understanding.
  • I am not comfortable discussing my vaccine status or explaining it. I appreciate you understanding.
  • I would love to come/attend but am wondering if vaccines or negative test results or masks will be required? Will masks be available?
  • (If someone tries to engage on a divisive topic) I hear you and understand you have your opinions. I would prefer not to discuss this right now, as it is the holidays. Thank you for understanding.

While it’s important to consider others’ feelings when we communicate, it’s also important to take into account what matters to you. Studies have shown that people are actually more receptive and less hurt than expected when they receive rejections accompanied by explanations of COVID-related concerns. You’ll enjoy the holidays a lot more if you feel safe and comfortable, and using open and honest communication can help.

The holidays can be hard to navigate, even in the best of times

While it’s always important to take care of your mental health, especially over the holidays, they’re often a time of stress—and COVID-19 has only increased this feeling for many people.

As things continue to change, it’s more important than ever to be clear on what matters to you, be proactive about sharing it with others, and be considerate of the expectations and boundaries of other people.

When we know our boundaries and communicate with our friends and family about them, holiday gatherings can be a much smoother experience, however we decide to navigate them.

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About the author

Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.

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