7 tips for surviving the holiday season, difficult conversations during COVID-19

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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) Health experts are advising people to limit gatherings during the holiday season.

This holiday season families are being forced to make difficult decisions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, while also trying to navigate potentially difficult conversations, all during a season that can already be difficult for many.

Dr. Marissa Carraway, a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Brody School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine offers 7 tips on how individuals can approach challenging conversations, reduce tension and modify traditions to celebrate the season safely.

Plan ahead and share your plan with others beforehand

“For each individual, we have to decide what we’re comfortable with and what our boundary is going to be,” said Dr. Marissa Carraway, a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Brody School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine.

“If that means you’re willing to go to a family function if everyone agrees to wear a mask, communicate that in advance with your family so that people aren’t caught off-guard by differences in expectations and comfort levels in the moment, which can cause a lot of tension.”

2.     Choose Your Battles

When it comes to tense conversations about divisive issues, like politics or COVID-19, Carraway suggests deciding what your goals or intentions are for the interaction and making sure that they’re reasonable.

“If your goal is to change people’s minds or make them agree with you, I don’t know that that’s very feasible,” Carraway said.

Particularly if you’re interacting with someone with very different beliefs, exercise discretion in the conversations in which you participate, and frame your perspective in ways that are approachable. 

3.     Know the Data

If you anticipate difficult conversations about COVID-19, politics or misinformation, providing data from reputable sources can be helpful to a conversation.

“I think data is important and I like the idea of using the data because I think maybe one of the best things that we could do is to avoid getting into a debate about COVID-19,” Carraway said. “I don’t think that anything fruitful will come of that other than maybe increased family tension during the holidays, which is not what we’re probably striving for.”

4.     Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Experts recommended practicing empathy, asking questions, listening and finding common ground to help diffuse tense conversations.

“What we need to do is try to understand people’s perspectives,” according to Dr. Andrea Kitta, a folklorist with a specialty in medicine, belief and the supernatural and associate professor in the English Department in ECU’s Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences. “Even if we don’t agree with them, that’s how we help have a discussion. Ask somebody, ‘What do you think is the big problem with it?’ Start with what they think instead of assuming what they think. … Sometimes we need to listen a little bit more, but sometimes we need to listen so that we can help correct as well.”

To diffuse tense conversations, Carraway said. it can be helpful to focus instead on areas where you can find common ground.

“I would say there are probably parts of the pandemic experience that we can all agree upon or relate to — like the fact that it stinks,” Carraway said. “Often if there’s a topic that we have differences of opinion, there’s some common ground that we can connect on and then leave it alone after that.”

5.     Get Creative: Modify Traditions, Start New Ones

To safely celebrate the holidays while still making the season merry and bright, plan to modify traditions to make them safer, and make new traditions with loved ones.

“Anecdotally, we are seeing so much more stress and depression and isolation. … People have pandemic fatigue — they’re tired of the quarantine, of avoiding friends and family and I think that’s understandable, but I think it makes a lot of people nervous at the same time,” Carraway said. “People are starting to get a little bit lax, because I think they’re feeling the push and pull of that — I want to stay safe, but I need that human connection. So, I think our biggest challenge with this holiday season is going to be to get creative, find ways to modify our family traditions, start new family traditions to find that connection with our loved ones, but to do it in a safe way.”

6.     Expect and Accept that this Holiday Season Will Be Different

“Change is uncomfortable and hard, and we don’t always like it,” Carraway said. “But I think we have to expect and accept that this holiday season is going to be different. If it’s not different it won’t be safe.”

7.     Battle the ‘Winter Blues’ by doing more of the things you enjoy

Carraway said she sees an increase in clients feeling more down, discouraged and depressed just after the holiday season. During these times, it’s helpful to dedicate more time to do the things you find rewarding, which can help improve mood.

“One of the things that we do when we start feeling discouraged or depressed is to cut out things in our life that feel optional, like exercise or hobbies,” Carraway said. “And those are the things we know that actually would improve our mood the most. You can be intentional about finding time to do those things — even if you don’t feel motivated to do them at first — that should help you to feel more encouraged and energized.”

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