The United States continues to hit new grim milestones, with deaths from COVID-19 surpassing 3,000 in a single day, hospitalizations exceeding 100,000 for the first time and daily cases near 200,000 in the first week of December. But despite that sobering news, many Americans — fresh from celebrating Thanksgiving — are in the throes of making plans for the next round of holidays, from traveling to warmer climes to hosting family gatherings. While the promising vaccine news might explain this burst of optimism, COVID fatigue has also seen people lose some of the rigorous discipline they had early on in the pandemic, letting down their guard when it comes to wearing masks, social distancing and staying home.
“I think it's fair to say that in the first few weeks there were many who were willing to say, ‘OK, I can make some adjustments in my lifestyle,’” Rheeda Walker, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston tells Yahoo Life, “but I think that that's certainly shifted since the beginning of the pandemic.” As time has gone on, Walker explains, it's become even more difficult for many to maintain some semblance of mental well-being and our emotional health, but also stay safe.
Walker explains that, nine months in, life under lockdown is no longer a novelty. Rather, it’s an “all-consuming,” long-term upheaval, especially as restrictions and recommended risk-mitigation practices ebb and flow. For instance, some of the hyper-vigilant behavior that defined the early days of the pandemic, such as meticulously wiping down groceries, has been deemed superfluous as more information about COVID-19 and how it’s transmitted is revealed. And depending on where one lives, the back-and-forth of local business closures and stay-at-home orders may result in mixed messaging that sees our own strict standards fall by the wayside. As air travel picks back up and indoor dining remains an option in some parts of the country, one might feel justified in relaxing their rules or feel a sense of false comfort.
With the festive season now in full swing, the temptation to take part in beloved traditions and socialize with loved ones outside of bubbles grows, weakening many’s resolve to follow guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The past several months have taken a huge toll on collective mental health, and the holidays, to many, represent a dazzling escape and opportunity to reconnect, regardless of the reality of the country’s dire health situation.
“The holidays are typically a joyous time of year for a lot of people,” says Walker, adding that, this year, they offer “an easy opportunity to kind of get back to some sense of normalcy, and to have some relief from the frustration and the exhaustion of managing this pandemic.”
The trick, then, is to make the most of this holiday season without going overboard and letting COVID fatigue compromise one’s sense of vigilance.
“One of the ways that we can both be safe and try and celebrate the holidays really requires creativity,” Walker suggests. “When we try to do what we've always done [during the holidays] in the middle of a pandemic, we're not going to be able to stay safe.”
So, throwing a big holiday bash with mistletoe or crowding around for carols may be a no-go, but reflecting on what you consider to be the most important aspect of the holidays could drum up some satisfying workarounds and new traditions, according to Walker.
“Is it connecting with family? Is it sharing presents?” she asks. “Are there other ways to do that, at least for now? ... We have to have the energy and the willingness to be creative so that we can have the holidays and be safe so that we can get into our 2021 holidays the best way possible.”
Peer pressure, whether it’s from friends who want to hang out or relatives desperate for you to come home for the holidays, can tip COVID fatigue into caving or making compromises you’re not comfortable with or will feel guilty about later. That’s why, Walker says, it’s important to set boundaries based on our individual situations and to then communicate to others what lines you aren’t willing to cross.
“We have to be steadfast in making the decisions that make the most sense for us,” she says. “We can say, ‘You know what? I appreciate that you think so much of me that you want me to be included in this family event. I really appreciate that.’ Start positive, but then say, ‘but for this season, or through January, or through June, or until I get the vaccine, I hope you understand that I really need to do what I need to do to stay safe and healthy for me and for the people in my home. Because again, we aren't just concerned about ourselves. We are concerned also about those who are around us, who could be vulnerable.”
One final piece of advice for pushing through COVID fatigue beyond the holidays is to “be intentional about how you manage your time and the expectations you have for yourself,” says Walker, adding that thinking more about the day to day can help put things into perspective.
“So what do I need for myself right now? Because psychologically we can't take on all of it. That's when we get into trouble, when we start to think or say to ourselves, ‘You know, I have to manage all of this, I have to fix all of this. I can't deal with all of this.’ But instead we can replace that with smaller pieces, like, ‘OK, what can I do for the next hour? What can I do for the next 15 minutes?’ ... Because if we let our minds get out of control and say, ‘I can't do this anymore,’ we start to spiral downward.”
She adds that people have to be even more intentional now than they were at the start of the pandemic, back when many were under the impression that lockdown life would be a short-term blip. But giving ourselves grace is also key.
“Nothing about any of this is easy,” she says. “And I think that's part of where some of us can get into trouble is we're thinking, ‘OK, you know, we should be through this, or, ‘this shouldn't be so hard,’ or, ‘I should be able to manage it.’ This is hard. This is beyond anything we ever could have imagined. And it has affected so many different parts of our lives. And one of the things that makes it more difficult is that even though we have experienced anxiety and depression, as individuals and collectively as a society, we had what we call buffers to balance those things out. So you have a bad day at work, but then you go to happy hour, or you have a stressful conversation with a friend and maybe you go see your mom. You know, we've had things that we've done socially to manage the stressful things, and we don't have that.”
—Video produced by Jenny Miller.
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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