Family, Festivity and Frenzy: Keeping the Happy in “Happy Holidays”

by April Lisante
Posted 12/15/21

The blaring return to the madness of the holidays this year may prove a bit jarring. So we asked Dr. Jacqueline Arenz, chief of psychiatry and medical director of Chestnut Hill Hospital’s Senior Behavioral Health Unit, as well as colleague Zia Ortega, nursing unit director of the Senior Behavioral Health Unit, to fill us in on ways we can cope with this holiday pandemonium.

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Family, Festivity and Frenzy: Keeping the Happy in “Happy Holidays”

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Last year, we bought the smaller turkeys, we set tables for two and some of us didn’t even leave the house when the holidays rolled around.

There were no frenzied shopping sprees, no cars loaded to the gills with gifts for the whole family, and on New Year’s, we took to the couch with a glass of champagne instead of spending a night on the town.

For some of us, the months of isolation were a real downer, for others, a welcome respite to all the chaos. But either way, the blaring return to the madness of the holidays this year may prove a bit jarring.

That guest room that’s been long-dormant will welcome visitors from near and far, and everyone will pack the house, from the in-laws you didn’t see for a year to that boisterous Uncle Bob and his crew. And the cooking. Let’s not forget about the cooking.

All this can take a toll, even subconsciously, on the hosts if we aren’t prepared. So we asked Dr. Jacqueline Arenz, chief of psychiatry and medical director of Chestnut Hill Hospital’s Senior Behavioral Health Unit, as well as colleague Zia Ortega, nursing unit director of the Senior Behavioral Health Unit, to fill us in on ways we can cope with this holiday pandemonium.

  1. So we all kind of hibernated last year for the holidays as was necessary during the pandemic, missing out on celebrations of all kinds, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. Why will diving into the holiday 2021 be traumatic for some?
  2. Dr. Arenz: “Because we missed out on so much last year, we tend to want to make up for lost time. We struggle to not disappoint ourselves in returning to normalcy, yet at the same time, many of us are experiencing Covid fatigue and find ourselves overwhelmed by the need to make this year measure up to pre-Covid times.”
  3. How can hosts or family cope with the return of tradition, with the expectation that it must somehow be “amazing” or “perfect” to make up for last year?
  4. Dr. Arenz: “It is important to remember we are in unprecedented times. Our holidays don’t need to stand up to the past. This year is an opportunity for renewal and a chance to make a new start.”

     Ortega: “The pressure to ‘make up’ for the absence of last year’s celebration can be an unnecessary expectation which we place upon ourselves. The priority is making sure we are all healthy, safe, and able to enjoy time with our loved ones. If we can focus on the value of spending time with loved ones and family after the separation last year, we can release the unnecessary pressure and expectations for perfection which holidays can often bring.”

  1. What are some guidelines hosts can set for themselves to make the holiday more manageable?
  2. Dr. Arenz: “Don’t overdo it. Don’t compare it to pre-Covid times and don’t overcompensate for lost time. Make it a safe and fun environment. And ask for help when needed.”
  3. How can hosts and families better prepare for the holidays?
  4. Dr. Arenz: “Try to make it about the authenticity of the holiday.”

     Ortega: “It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the holiday season but I would advise people to know their own limitations. It’s also beneficial to recognize when we may need help before we reach our stress limits. Often, we reject help for fear of feeling inadequate or not wanting to burden someone else, but it is often their way of them wanting to show their appreciation to you, as much as your hosting is a sign of your appreciation for them. If someone offers to help you, it's ok to accept it.”

  1. What is the most important thing we can take away from the pandemic year to make this year better mentally for everyone?
  2. Dr. Arenz “We’ve been through trauma, personal and collective. We must acknowledge that in order to heal. Because of the loss we’ve experienced, we can appreciate the future that much more. Appreciate the small things.”

    Ortega. “Appreciating the value of our health and our loved ones has never been more significant. When this is held in perspective, particularly during the holiday season, the rest becomes irrelevant. Holidays can also be a time of sadness for many due to loneliness and isolation. If you know someone who may need additional support during the holiday season, I encourage you to reach out to them even if it’s just a friendly phone call, visit, or letter. This could make a world of difference to their holiday season.”

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