UCI professor and clinical psychologist Jessica Borelli shares tips for reducing stress and navigating difficult situations

The holidays this year aren’t quite back to normal. With the pandemic still lurking and people disagreeing over safety measures, it can be difficult to navigate family gatherings and experience the joy of the season.

So, we asked Jessica Borelli, UCI associate professor of psychological science and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in parent-child relationships, to share some insights on how to handle COVID-19 complexities and still mean it when we say “Happy holidays!"

How should I deal with family or friends who disagree with my preferences about COVID safety?

Even though we are in a better place in terms of COVID-19 than last year, in some ways the contention over COVID has only grown. Vaccinated or not vaccinated? Do we wear masks or not? Outdoors or indoors? Perhaps because we have had longer to linger over everything, people’s feelings on these matters are stronger, making the need to be tolerant even greater. If we have different preferences for health and safety than our friends or family, we (or they) may have to make the choice to abstain from holiday festivities. Worse yet, our family and friends may not understand, giving rise to hurt feelings or alienation if our practices go against theirs. Here are some recommendations to help:

  • Start every conversation about preferences for safety by expressing how much you value the relationship with the other person. Doing so will help defuse the tensions that can result from any difference of opinions. Following up on the conversation with a written reminder about how much you value the connection and cannot wait until things are back to normal may help solidify the message that your decision to abstain isn’t about your lack of desire to connect with them.
  • Express distancing/safety preferences clearly and directly. Even though this can be hard, it’s better to be upfront about what you want and need to keep you and your family safe.
  • If your preferences are less restrictive, ask the other person what they would need or want to feel safe interacting.
  • If you and the other person agree to not meeting in person, you may wish to identify “second best” ways of staying connected. You could send a gift box of special items or talk on Zoom or by phone during the holidays.
  • If you’re feeling guilty or left out, it may help to remember that even if you were present, it might be hard to enjoy social situations while feeling anxious about infection. Talking about how much you wish you could be there with the people you’re missing is a way of sharing your love for them and may help reduce any guilt you have. 

How do I navigate office holiday parties or networking events? 

Networking and socializing are still different. Wearing masks, maintaining physical distance (either 6 feet apart or via virtual events), staying aware of people’s preferences for socializing – all of this changes the dynamics of networking and business. It increases the importance of consent in all aspects of social interactions (e.g., “Is it OK with you if I sit near you?” “Are you comfortable with eating and/or drinking?”) and forces us to be cognizant of the ways each of our actions impacts othersAlthough COVID undoubtedly makes many aspects of social interactions more difficult, it does offer opportunities for greater building of trust within relationships. By showing that you honor and respect another person’s boundaries and wishes, you are able to demonstrate your trustworthiness within a relationship, which can ultimately be good for long-term business relationships.

As a student going back to my family’s home for the holidays, why does it feel like I now have two homes? How do I manage travel stress and getting everything done AND being safe for the holidays?

You’ve settled into a new normal on campus – developed new routines, gotten comfortable being around larger groups of people, gotten used to living with roommates. As long as you abide by the campus rules for COVID-19 safety, you’re good – you get to be in charge of your behavior. You don’t have to play by anyone else’s rules. But now you are going to disrupt this rhythm to go home to see your family, where someone else sets the rules and you have to abide by them.

Unsurprisingly, this may introduce some anxiety for your family and maybe for you. On their part, the anxiety and uncertainty stem from having you return home from a less-controlled environment and introduce more risk into their lives. On your part, anxiety and uncertainty arise because you are about to lose some of the freedom and control you have come to value. It’s easy to take their feelings personally, to experience it as a rejection of you or a lack of desire to be around you, when really it’s about their desire to stay safe and healthy so they can be around you for a long time. How can you manage these difficulties?

  • Have conversations with family members ahead of time to ask what would make them feel comfortable as you transition back home for the holidays.
  • Express the desire to spend as much time with them as possible, as well as a desire to make them feel comfortable with their level of exposure.
  • Provide them with information regarding your daily life and your COVID risk.
  • Offer additional safety precautions, such as taking COVID tests before the trip home and after arriving.
  • Ask their expectations for your behavior when you are living at home. State what you want or expect in terms of your behavior when you are living at home. Share information about the level of freedom you’ve become accustomed to in college (and how you’ve grown with that freedom).

What about grief during the holidays? If I lost someone, what are some ways to cope with depression during the holidays?

The holidays are usually a time for cheer and enjoying the company of others, but they can also bring up painful feelings if you are missing someone you lost. The last few years have brought a number of losses, many of which have not been adequately mourned because of COVID restrictions on traditional mourning rituals (e.g., funerals, memorials). This can leave people with feelings of grief, loss and longing that arise during holidays, times when you usually huddle closely with family and friends. What can you do if you find yourself contending with these feelings during the holidays?

  • Talking about how you are feeling – particularly with those who are also missing and longing for the person in question – can make you feel less alone. Share memories of the departed person and times you felt close to them. Doing so will help ease feelings of longing in the present.
  • Feelings of sadness and depression may pull us to want to isolate, but that is rarely the right answer, as it typically only exacerbates our negative feelings.
  • More often, when we spend time around others engaging in pleasant activities, we tend to experience a boost in our mood. Thus, the more you can get out and be around others, even when you don’t initially feel motivated to do so, the better.

What if rifts have developed between friends or family over the last year, and I don’t have access to the same holiday celebrations I previously took part in?

Conflicts and rifts over COVID practices or politics may make the holidays more difficult. These have been a tense few years, and rare is the family that has not been affected by COVID-related conflicts. If yours is one of these families, you may wish to start fresh this year and ask everyone what type of gathering they were envisioning (rather than assuming you’re all on the same page, because, well, you saw how that worked out last year).

  • Taking a poll and creating a gathering that adheres to the preferences of the most cautious attendee is one approach. Creating a gathering that honors the preferences of the greatest number of attendees is another.
  • You may also want to talk about the conflicts that have arisen in your family – and about the fact that it’s possible to have many different perspectives on a situation, and that each perspective is often a function of someone’s circumstances, so it makes sense that they are different.

I’m going to be alone for the holidays this year. How can I stay positive and engaged?

It might help to make a list of activities ahead of time that feel like holiday treats and that you find restorative. How about simple things like listening to music, taking a bubble bath, watching movies on the couch, reading the paper from front to back, baking cookies, sleeping in, taking long walks, catching up by phone with old friends or taking your dog to the park? Doing a few of these or similar activities each day will replenish your energy and help you stay positive and engaged.

Normally, as a new year approaches, I think of what I’m thankful for and what I’m looking forward to. I’m not sure what that looks like this year.

The holidays are a challenging time because of expectations that people should feel joyous or grateful. When you don’t particularly feel that way, the contrast can seem painfully large, which can cause you to be depressed. If you don’t feel thankful for the new year or especially optimistic about what is to come, you’re not alone. This is still a difficult time for many people. Some have it harder than others, but almost everyone is struggling in some way. We are all in this together.

Also, you’re allowed to not feel grateful or joyous; it’s OK to take a break from being cheery. Sometimes it’s better to acknowledge and be honest about it than pretend you feel something else, which takes a lot of effort that you may not have the energy for right now.