Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness column

Ways to feel connected this holiday season after months of isolation: Jennifer Moss

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been warned to keep a good distance from other people not in their household, self-isolate or stay home during lockdowns. But now, with some restrictions being lifted, people can get together and that may have some feeling anxious.

Many are feeling the after-effects of being apart for such a long time, Moss writes

With some COVID-19 restrictions being lifted in parts of the country, people are thinking about gathering over the holidays and that may have some feeling anxious. (Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)

Last December we were still deep in social distancing and isolation.

But here we are a year later, and the holiday season feels a bit more hopeful. Evidence shows that the prospect of being able to gather plays big role in our enthusiasm for the upcoming holiday season. 

Even before the pandemic, many couldn't wait for the holidays. And this year, people are especially excited because we can be together without any major restrictions.

But being apart for such a long time and the new habits we've developed due to social distancing rules means the adjustment to full-on festivities won't be easy for everyone. But, staying isolated isn't good for our well-being either — particularly during the holidays when being together in person is a major contributor to our happiness. 

The value of social connection 

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, connecting with others is more important than most people realize. Social connection can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, and can give us higher self-esteem and increase our empathy.

According to Stanford researcher Emma Seppala, social connection:

  • Strengthens our immune system.
  • Helps us to recover from disease faster.
  • Gives us a 50 per cent increased chance of longevity.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Low levels of social connection are associated with:

  • Declines in physical and psychological health — research actually shows that genes impacted by loneliness also code for immune function and inflammation.
  • A higher likelihood for antisocial behaviour that leads to further isolation. 
  • Higher vulnerability to anxiety and depression. 

Major holidays are important for maintaining and growing close connections with family members and research shows people often experience increased wellbeing during these times.

For example, Dec. 25 is one of the happiest day of the year in Canada, and Thanksgiving is one of the happiest days of the year in the United States as people claim to have the least stress.

A study that analyzed well-being during Thanksgiving in 2020 found that participants who saw even one other person face-to-face reported significantly higher personal life satisfaction, sense of growth, and wellbeing than those who did not.

The data reinforces that it's connection — not gifts or food or decorations — that make us happy during the holidays.

When holidays cause harm

However, the holidays can place pressure on people to be happy, even when they aren't. 

A server brings food to a table as people dine at a restaurant in Vancouver. If you're concerned about having conversations in person again, consider coming up with talking points or conversation starters ahead of social gatherings. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

For some, this time of the year can feel increasingly isolating and stressful. In an era of grief where families have lost loved ones to COVID-19, celebrating can feel particularly hard. 

It can also be challenging for seniors. Some may be living alone, or they can't risk being with others because of COVID-19, or travel is too hard on them physically. 

This is why we really need to look out for each other and find ways to connect even more this year than ever before. 

Connect with most vulnerable

Eldercare consultant and Minding Our Elders author Carol Bradley Bursack has several suggestions on how to better connect with our seniors. She suggests: 

  • Making a point of actively listening, even if what they have to say is negative. It may reveal why someone is feeling down and inspire other ways of lifting their spirits.
  • Sending holiday cards. Bursack suggests we ask family members and friends to contribute cards, photographs or drawings to make seasonal mail feel plentiful and ensure they are upbeat. Help older family members by writing outgoing cards as well. 
  • If a senior is in a long-term care facility, check with the activities director and local schools or extracurricular programs to see if they can arrange for children to do virtual or distanced visits with or performances for the residents. New activities and interactions with younger generations can be very uplifting for elders who are in physical or emotional pain. Pet therapy is another source of entertainment and socialization that can bring joy.
  • Help by adding festive touches to their home or room in the long-term care facility. Maybe get on a virtual call if you can't be there in person as they unpack decorations and ask questions about their stories.

Most importantly, it's about reinforcing social connections and making sure our most vulnerable know that they matter and are loved.

How to stay connected despite social anxiety

After 20 months of being apart, it's understandable to struggle with getting out there and being social. The number of people now reporting social anxiety has skyrocketed since the pandemic.

But, it doesn't need to be this way forever. We can break the habit of disconnection to get back to what contributes most to our long-term happiness: social connection. Here are some tips to get back in the habit of hanging out. 

Talk Yourself Up. It may sound hokey, but sometimes we need a little internal pep talk to make sure we don't bail at the last minute. We don't need to say yes to every event, but we should commit to one or two that are meaningful. Just plan to follow-through without giving your brain an opt-out clause.

Help the host. Focusing on tasks can help reduce anxiety and as we're handing out food or taking coats or helping out, we get time to normalize to the environment. 

This next few weeks should be about gathering and reconnecting, writes Moss. But breaking the habit of social distancing won't be easy for everyone. (Kamil Macniak / Shutterstock)

Hang out with the littles. According to journalist Renee Fabian, in her article 9 Ways To Manage Social Anxiety During The Holidays she shares that "adults can be anxiety-provoking. But at a family or friend party, there's a good chance there may be children, pets, or both, and they offer an opportunity to take the perceived spotlight off of you."

Fabian writes that pets can also provide mental health benefits during stressful times: "Petting animals reduces blood pressure, elevates mood, and releases endorphins."

Prep talking points. Some suggest if you are feeling extreme social anxiety to use tools like preparing a few talking points or conversation starters.

Leverage a mantra. In your head in moments where you're particularly stressed, repeat, "I'm ok" or "I'm not the only person who feels weird/uncomfortable/awkward. I am not alone."

Phone a friend. Or just plan a signal that has your friend coming to your rescue if you're really struggling in a conversation. 

Despite people feeling more nervous than normal to connect with others right now, it's important to try even if it's just for a few hours.

This next month in our lives should be about gathering and reconnecting. We could all use some levity and storytelling while eating and celebrating traditions — it's deeply encoded into the traits that makes us human. 

And it's why so many of us, despite our stresses and worries and fears, love this season most of all. 

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