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This year has been unlike anything we've ever lived through. We started the year with bushfires here in Australia, followed by floods and then the coronavirus pandemic. We've barely had any time to just breathe and relax.
But, now we're nearing the end of what has likely been the toughest year of many people's lives and one thing that a lot of people will be struggling with this Christmas is isolation and being unable to visit their family and friends.
If you've been feeling lonely this festive season, know that you're not alone, many of us are feeling similarly and while we can't magically make everything OK, we've spoken to some experts on how to best cope at this time of the year.
Dr Kieran Kennedy, a medical doctor working in psychiatry, spoke to Yahoo Lifestyle about why this time of the year can be so challenging for some.
"The holiday period can definitely be a tough time for us mentally, and whilst it's overall a (hopefully) connecting and joy filled time it can also, for many people, be a stressful, anxiety-provoking or emotionally tough period of time," Dr Kennedy said.
"Research shows that Christmas can indeed put strain on our mental health - whether it's bringing up past family difficulties or trauma, straining already tested relationships, the lack of sleep and increase in alcohol or just the general stress/strain, it's a time that isn't always jolly.
"Isolation is definitely something that many people really feel the pinch of over the holiday season. For those living away from home, working over the holidays or who might have to miss significant dates or events for whatever reason it can be hard to feel distanced from the ones we love during a season that tells us that's what the Christmas spirit is all about."
He continued, "This year we've seen research findings and surveys show that isolation and separation from loved ones is one of the major points to why we've found the pandemic so hard. So I definitely think Christmas is going to hit many people hard from that perspective. Whilst things are looking up here in Australia and NZ, many people are likely still limited in being able to see family (particularly for those originally from overseas). Add the already pent up stress and strain from an unprecedented year, and the usual Christmas dynamics that can hit our mental health are likely to feel even more pressing."
Dr Kennedy added many of his patients "are already feeling less than 100 per cent" this year, which "means things that we might normally cope OK with (like spending time away from family on Xmas) can feel like too much or one added weight too many".
Kim Singline is a psychologist who specialises in supporting teams, leaders and organisations, and has spent most of 2020 helping navigate the leadership challenges arising from COVID, such as remote working and staff wellbeing.
Speaking with Yahoo Lifestyle, Kim also shared her top tips for how to handle Covid isolation this Christmas.
1. Acknowledge it's going to be a different kind of Christmas experience
"It has been a really tough year," Kim said. "I think it's important to acknowledge that you may be feeling more tired and fragile than usual at this stage. Feeling sad, feeling flat, feeling disappointed that this Christmas may not look like previous Christmas' because of COVID - these are all very normal responses to a very abnormal situation, and acknowledging these feelings with self-compassion is important."
Dr Kennedy added, "If you're feeling isolated, homesick or anxious about what Christmas looks like this year it's important to know that's normal, more than OK and something many people the world over are feeling. Even acknowledging something on the mental front can ease some of the power it holds."
2. Talk about how you're feeling with a trusted friend or family member
"From a brain perspective, simply putting your feelings into words helps reduce stress, while studies have demonstrated that sharing our emotions and problems with others can significantly reduce our physical and emotional distress," Kim shared.
Dr Kennedy agreed, "Talking to others, including your family from afar, about how you're feeling about feeling isolated over Christmas is key and often dispels some of the tension, fear and isolation we're feeling.
3. Be solution focused
"Once you've acknowledged the sadness, disappointment, frustration etc., it's time to take some control back," Kim added. "Asking yourself what is in my control here? How can I connect with my loved ones through the holiday season? I've had leaders send out each of their staff members a personalised Christmas card and small gift in the mail, which everyone opened at the same time on ZOOM during a team catch up, which was lovely. Other clients, who cannot physically be with their extended families this year, due to travel restrictions, are catching up with other friends who are in the same boat for a Christmas picnic (Friendsmas!)."
4. Reframe your thinking
"Most of us are pretty tired and ready for 2020 to be over, which can mean that we can be more likely to think pessimistically. It's important to remember that we may have to do Christmas a bit differently this year, but this is for a very good reason - it means we will be more likely to have holiday seasons that are more normal, with all of our loved ones, in the years to come."
5. Find the silver linings
"While Christmas family gatherings are lovely, perhaps there are some things that you won't miss this year, such as your granny asking you for the 100th time when you'll settle down and get married, or your brother-in-law teasing you about your dietary preferences. After such a long year, there may be some relief at not having to navigate some of these more tiring situations! If you're unable to be with those you're normally with this year, you get to create your own, personalised Christmas day... binging Netflix, takeaway, a pudding all to yourself, and champagne - and wearing your PJs all day? Go for it!"
Kim also shared that while many of us have Zoom fatigue, it will make things much easier when it comes to seeing our loved ones over Christmas, but added it's important to remember those who maybe have trouble using technology.
"Writing heartfelt letters or cards, or sending thoughtful gifts, can be a lovely way to stay connected and let others know you are thinking of them," she said.
Dr Kennedy also shared his tips for connecting with loved ones when you can't physically be by their side, saying, "Just because something's different to the way it's been before doesn't mean it still can't be connecting and meaningful. Research actually shows that social connection through the phone, over video or even letters offers positive benefits for mental health - and can help allay feelings of loneliness and isolation.
"Lock in regular contact with friends and family that you might be separated from right now. Get creative with what catch ups or holiday events look like - and know that even if it's not quite the same, it's still worthwhile and socially connecting. Zoom dinners or drinks are something we've been using over lockdown a lot - and it's important to keep them up over the holidays. We know that social connection over digital mediums is boosted when we feel heard and when we express how we're really feeling and doing - so don't be afraid to get a little deeper and tell family if you're struggling."
He also shared a patient's story, "A patient recently told me they're going to do a 'virtual Christmas Eve' with family overseas, and I instantly loved the idea. Preparing some Christmas food, doing family traditions together over video and even watching a movie together on the couch (started at the same time) while you're all on camera can be great ways to feel like you're still together in some form. Surround yourself with some of the traditional decorations, foods or little keep sakes you'd normally have at home or with family - it might make feelings of homesick ramp up a little to start with, but overall it helps us feel more connected to others even if we're physically apart."
Kim also stressed that while it might seem obvious, getting some regular exercise will also make a huge difference to your mental health and to take a proper break from work if possible and disconnect completely.
Dr Kennedy added, "We need to look after a stressed mind just as we would an unwell body. If nothing else, lock in and prioritise sleep, regular meals, some daily exercise and scheduling something you enjoy just for itself (like a hobby, music or art). These things can really make a difference when we're feeling isolated and they bolster our mind to weather the storm as 2020 comes to a close."
It might not feel like it, but this year has actually given us some new qualities, Kim added, “While this year has been tough, remember that adversity can help us foster many wonderful qualities - things like greater resilience, more compassion, and increased appreciation and gratitude for stuff that we may have taken for granted previously.”
"While we can't change COVID, or the restrictions that we are experiencing, it is always in our power to choose how we respond to life's challenges, including making the choice that we can and will still have a happy holiday season, even if it does look different this year."
Mental health support for yourself or a loved one can be found by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, Mensline on 1300 789 978, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. Online support is available via Beyond Blue.
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