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In a normal year, the holidays often bring mental health challenges. Many feel stressed out or worried they won’t be able to afford gifts for their families. Some feel they must create the “perfect” holiday for their families. Others feel a sharp disconnect between their own sense of sadness and depression and holiday cheer. And that’s in a normal year.


But 2020, of course, is anything but normal. By mid-December, more than 300,000 Americans had died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of others have been affected, whether by losing a loved one, suffering through the virus themselves, or losing a job or a drop in income. As a nation, we are deeply divided over politics and even in how to respond to the virus.


Mental health counselor Estefana Johnson feels this swirl of emotions keenly this holiday season. Her father passed away in July after contracting COVID. Her mother and brother were severely ill as well, but recovered. Many of the clients she sees at her practice in Phoenix have also been directly affected by the virus.


“When there’s an empty spot at the table, that sense of grief is magnified at the holidays,” says Johnson, a master Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) clinician. “There are so many people who are feeling grief this year, whether it’s loss of a loved one, loss of a job or loss of a sense of normalcy.”


Johnson offered the following tips to help people cope with during the holidays:


  • Acknowledge and accept your feelings. It’s ok to feel sad or angry or frustrated. Name and make peace with your feelings. “Adjust to what is, not what we hope will be,” says Johnson. “What is important is the connection with loved ones.”


  • Start new traditions. In most areas, attending crowded parties or church services or packing into a relative’s home for dinner just isn’t safe. But there are new traditions you could start to celebrate the holidays, such as a socially-distanced cookie exchange or a Zoom movie night. Maybe this is the year your family starts a coat drive for people in need. “At my office, we are doing a secret Santa, with notes and a treasure hunt that doesn’t require face to face interaction, but it’s still a nice little connection,” says Johnson.


  • Give yourself permission to just survive. This does not need to be the year you have the best tree, the most presents or the fanciest dinner. “Give yourself permission to not make a big meal, there’s no rule saying you can’t order pizza for Christmas dinner,” says Johnson. “It’s important to just be able to get through the day.”


  • Continue healthy habits. It can be tempting to eat or drink too much during the holidays, but that can lead to feeling worse. Remember to exercise, drink plenty of water and get a good night’s sleep– all things that can help you maintain your physical and mental health.


  • Set realistic goals for the New Year. A long list of ambitious goals can be daunting and lead people to give up quickly. Instead, Johnson recommends, set a simple and discrete goal that you can accomplish, such as taking a short walk each day or setting up a weekly call with a loved one.


  • Seek professional help if needed. If you are dealing with grief, anxiety, depression, trauma or other mental health issues, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) can help people experiencing these conditions in an average of four sessions. To find an ART therapist near you, visit ART International’s clinician directory.