November 23, 2021

ASU chief wellness officer discusses potential challenges, strategies for families as they reintegrate this holiday season

For many, 2021 has provided some much needed sense of normalcy, especially when compared with the previous year.

Even though the pandemic is still lurking, the widespread distribution of safe and effective vaccines and a better understanding of how COVID-19 is contracted and can be treated has helped people feel more comfortable in returning to a modified pre-pandemic lifestyle.

One of the activities predicted to rebound significantly this year is holiday travel — after taking quite the expected dip last year as cases surged nationwide.

With reason to feel optimistic, families are beginning to cautiously plan for holiday gatherings to restart or, in some cases, throw out old traditions after a forced hiatus.

“It may be the case that some of the things people did before the pandemic as it relates to holiday traditions no longer serve them, or no longer feel manageable nearly two years later and that’s OK,” said Judith Karshmer, Arizona State University chief wellness officer and dean of the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

Between the heaviness of the pandemic, grief of losing loved ones and just overall stress and anxiety that can come up for people during the holidays, Karshmer anticipates this upcoming season could be especially tricky for many.

In this Q&A, she discusses potential challenges and strategies for families and loved ones as they begin to reintegrate this holiday season.

Question: While last year’s holidays may have been limited to close friends and family, this year many people hope to get back to business as usual. Is that advisable?

A: It’s always advisable to connect with our family and friends — it’s how to do it that is the question. The whole reason to spend time with our loved ones is that we enjoy being with them, so of course we want to make sure they stay healthy so they are there for us in the future. 

What could be a better motivator for being vaccinated than knowing it will not only keep you safe, but your family and friends as well?

For those of us who are fortunate enough to live in Arizona, this year might be a good one to move large family gatherings outdoors. For folks traveling to colder climates, be sure to mask up when you are visiting in close, crowded situations.

The CDC has shared its updated guidance for this holiday season, and not surprisingly its recommendations revolve around vaccination status. It’s a good resource to keep handy and refer to as you consider travel and event plans.

Q: What steps would you recommend if gathering with friends and family?

A: This may sound like a broken record, but make sure you have already had the conversation with whomever you will be spending time with about vaccination status. Avoiding surprises will undoubtedly lead to smoother reunions. To that end, if you know someone is unvaccinated, you should wear a mask and watch your proximity to one another.

On a more personal level, we often think it is our right to tell our family and friends what to say, do and how to act. That didn’t work too well before the pandemic, and it probably won’t work now. So, rather than engage in unbeatable arguments, enjoy the precious time you have with them instead of trying to change long-held points of view.

If we have learned one key thing in the last two years, it is how quickly our lives can change as a result of something out of our control — focus on what you can control, your response to what’s not in your control and your attitude about adjusting.

Q: How can we cope with possible feelings of anxiety?

A: First, I think it is important to acknowledge that for many people the holidays are actually something to dread. And as a result, all that merrymaking and jovial attitude become quite off-putting. Nothing makes you feel worse than feeling sad and lonely when everyone else seems to be so happy and connected.

So I’d suggest being gentle on yourself and others because you just don’t always know what is really going on in someone’s life. And the world would be a better place, truly, if we were all a little kinder to one another.

It’s also good to remember that for all of us, the holidays can bring a focus on loss. Because of the intensity of the last two years, that feeling of loss or anxiety, or sense of sadness may be even more acute this year.

The last thing you need to do is try to run away from those feelings. A better approach is to give yourself permission to feel and use that to motivate caring for yourself.  Rather than avoid the feeling, lean into it and do what allows you to get in touch with yourself. For me that’s a long walk, a bike ride, listening to a meaningful playlist, reading and sometimes getting a massage!

Q: How do holiday traditions continue if a loved one is no longer with us this year due to COVID-19?

A: Holiday traditions are not static and evolve over time. We add family members, kids, spouses, boy- and girlfriends, and each carves out a new place in our time-honored tradition. When we lose a loved one, their place is not gone — we feel it quite intensely.

Honor them by taking time to remember them. Taking time to recall the stories, the events, the disagreements and the love can be a key part of moving the tradition forward.

Q: After spending time with loved ones, are there any steps you would recommend to decompress?

A: The fact is, most of us will need a bit of recovery time. After being with family and friends in time and often space, navigating the feelings, emotions and stressors we’ve already mentioned, we’re going to need some time to chill. Take it!

Give yourself the gift of a little alone time to remember, savor and catalog the holiday. Even the not-so-perfect parts — if there were any — are there to keep us focused on the whole of our relationships and the richness and complexity of being loved and being part of a family.

Q: What are some resources you’d suggest for anyone who may find themselves in need of some help navigating this season?

A: Remember, if you’re a student and need help to deal with your feelings, worries or concerns during the holiday season or at any time, you have access to a counselor 24/7 from anywhere in the world.

ASU employees have their own resource and can connect to similar services through the university’s employee assistance program.

If you’re not an employee or a student, I’d suggest the wonderful and free content and meditations available through ASU’s Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience. You don’t need any experience or training to benefit from one of the center’s meditation sessions — just a few minutes and access to YouTube.

And beyond that, I’d estimate each of us has an array of resources already available to help get us through any stressful or joyful experience. Externally, there’s our family, friends and co-workers, to name a few. Internally, we have our exquisite knowledge of ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses. Exploit all these resources without shame when needed, and try to enjoy the holidays!

Written by Gabriella Kemp and Amanda Goodman. Top photo courtesy of pixabay.com