Dec. 21, 2020

How to handle holidays during a pandemic

UCalgary mental health professionals share tips for the winter break

For students, postdoctoral scholars, faculty and staff, coming off of a busy academic semester has its own set of struggles. Add to that, a doubling down of sorts: entering into holiday mode under an entirely different context with COVID-19.

Many of us are disconnected from our supportive communities and networks. Students, staff, and faculty continue to adapt to studying and working remotely, and those on campus in frontline positions continue working to keep our community safe. Many may be feeling isolated and are experiencing additional financial constraints.  

Debbie Bruckner, senior director, student wellness, access and support, says this kind of juggling can be quite stressful, and combined with the holiday season hype there’s a real possibility our mental health might experience strain.

“Our baseline has changed with COVID-19. Many people feel additional levels of stress, fatigue, anxiety and a variety of losses,” explains Bruckner.

Because of this, Bruckner and Michele Moon, team lead, wellbeing and worklife, suggest a few areas to address that could help lead to a better sense of calm over the holiday season.

Acknowledge that it might be an extraordinary and difficult time

We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and holidays may not even have prominence in our field of vision. However, it may still highlight a lack of connection or significant concerns about our own health and the health of loved ones. The holidays can be very difficult at the best of times. It can emphasize feelings of loneliness, sadness, disconnection or otherwise. It can also signal an anniversary. For example, if there has been a loss, recent or not, feelings of grief could come up in more intense ways during this time of year.

Seasonal celebrations, in particular, can also be unfamiliar culturally. For all of this, Bruckner emphasizes the importance of self-compassion, and allowing those feelings, when they come up, to be recognized and to hold space for them in ways that serve you.

Check in with yourself

Doing a self check-in on your own well-being over the holidays can go a long way. Asking ourselves questions like: How have I been sleeping? Have I been active? Am I eating well? Do I need to call a close friend, or attend a virtual meeting? What types of online resources might be helpful? What supports have helped in the past that I could lean on now?

“Sometimes a self check-in can help call to attention something actionable that might make our lives easier,” says Moon. “For me, sometimes that’s completing the one task that’s been really nagging or prepping and doubling a simple and enjoyable meal I can have for leftovers.”

Connect to community

“Resilience is as much about connecting to oneself as it is about connecting to one’s community, says Bruckner, and both can be real protective factors for mental health and well-being.”

Reaching out and connecting to others could be what helps you through a rough time over the holidays. Bruckner emphasizes that this can look different for everyone; maybe it’s a co-worker you feel close to, or a long-lost friend living in a different country. Having supportive people in your circle and connecting to those you feel safe with can be really helpful during this time of year. Connecting virtually may not be ideal; however, each contact signifies a connection.

Relax expectations and create new traditions that serve you

With the bustle of holidays, a number of expectations arise: what needs to get done and off a to-do list, what yearly dish or baking you feel pressure to produce, who you feel you should make time for. You might not even have the interest or inclination to consider previous expectations. This, coupled with the inevitable comparison that comes with social media scrolling over the holidays and COVID updates, can create pressure. For this, Bruckner likes to pose a question and a challenge:

If there were no expectations, what would you like to do over the holidays? You don’t have to spend the time the way you see others spend it. You can make your own traditions. The world is a different place right now, ask yourself: what do I need that’s in my control?

This could be as simple as getting out for a walk or reading a favourite book. Or maybe it’s working purposefully on creating new memories to replace ones that cause difficulties, like, for example, previously held traditions that might trigger bad memories.

Consider acts of kindness

We are all extraordinarily busy with work and school, and possibly feeling financial constraints. We are never too busy to be kind, caring and patient with others who may be at a breaking point. A smile, a kind word or simple gesture can go a long way to making someone feel supported, or even seen in difficult times. The best gifts we can give others this holiday season are love and kindness. Helping others can also be personally uplifting as well.

Need to talk to someone? Use the resources below over the holidays, available 24/7

First and foremost, being open and honest with friends and family about your feelings should be a priority. But maybe your need to connect is more immediate. Student Wellness Services and Staff Wellness will be closed Dec. 23 to Jan. 1; however, supports are available should you need to talk to someone. Check out the resources below for the right one for you.

Alberta Health Services Mental Health Help Line
Mental health concerns for Alberta residents. Call 1-877-303-2642.

Distress Centre
Speak to a highly trained volunteer, who will actively listen and provide additional resources if needed. Call 403-266-4357 or visit them online for chat information.

Wood’s Homes Community Resource Team
Connect with someone by calling 403-299-9699 or 1-800-563-6106. Text 587-315-5000 between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. Find information on no-cost walk-in counselling services.

Homewood Health (for staff, faculty and postdoctoral scholars)
Get immediate crisis support or initiate counselling services by calling 1-800-633-1142 (select option #1 for crisis).

Kid’s Help Phone (for ages five to 29 who need support)
Call, chat or text 24/7. Visit online or call a counsellor at 1-800-668-6868.

More mental health resources

Community Connect YYC
Book affordable barrier-free phone or video counselling sessions.

Togetherall
Join and connect to a clinically moderated online peer-to-peer mental health community. - Free to Albertans over the age of 16.

Bounceback
A free guided self-help program that helps adults and youth age 15-plus learn how to manage low mood, mild-to-moderate depression, anxiety, stress or worry.

Wellness Together Canada
Free online resources and supports including immediate text support, information and videos, self-guided mental wellness programs and counselling.

For information on resources available on campus, check out the Campus Mental Health Strategy’s Get Support section of the website. The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Find support and connect to the strategy.