“The holidays are filled with both joy and stress,” says Ellen Braaten, PhD, an HMS associate professor of psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate director of its Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. This year has given rise to additional stressors and has made me rethink the things I considered stressful in the past. This change in thinking is what Braaten and other mental health professionals refer to as “cognitive flexibility” or shifting set: the brain's ability to adapt your behavior and thoughts to new, changing, or unexpected events. “The tough part,” says Braaten, “is that shifting set, which can be hard for us at any point in the year, is particularly pervasive at the holidays.” For the shift to be successful, one must practice cognitive flexibility and shift attention between one task or stressor and another while trying to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances.
Here are examples of my “shift” this holiday season, that you might want to consider.
The holiday stress of sending out the cards. Social media and technology have more or less brought an end to that tradition, so I, like many others I have opted out of sending cards the past few years. But as I thought about it, I shifted and changed my thoughts, now is a great time to bring back that tradition. So many people are alone and isolated because of the pandemic. A card could make all the difference in the world to them. A handwritten note in a card shows that you care and are thinking about them even if you can’t be with them. Something as simple as “Can’t wait to see you in 2021” gives the receiver hope and something to look forward to. We had family night to make homemade cards, this was quality family time, kept everyone off the electronics and brought joy to us all knowing that we would be sending joy to others.
Financial Stress. For several people this year, including my family, holiday financial stress is more prevalent. When the pandemic hit many people lost their jobs or went on unemployment. We talked to our family about doing a drawing of names so that each person would only have to buy a gift for one person. We also made it a fun experience of the drawing of the names. Another suggestion is to have the family agree on a price cap, one that is fair to everyone. And remember, gifts don’t have to be purchased, they could be made or an experience like “coupons” for a picnic lunch or cleaning the gutters (if that is not your normal chore). Gifts from the heart show gratitude and love.
Holiday Shopping. Shopping for the holidays has often been a cause for stress: waiting in long lines, the crowds, and last-minute items I forgot. This year with the pandemic most retailers started their Black Friday deals online before Thanksgiving, so I started early. I shopped from the comfort of my own home (I even did it in my pjs), on my own schedule, and had it delivered thus avoiding the stress and lowering my risk of getting or carrying to others the coronavirus. Plus, I was able to make that list and check it twice.
Cooking for the Family. I love cooking and baking for the family, but it can be time consuming and hard work. My family won’t be having a big holiday dinner this year due to the Coronavirus, but my small local family has decided we are going to have a Christmas bonfire where we can enjoy being outside, socially distance, toast marshmallows, drink hot chocolate, listen to carols and be together.
Personally, I was getting a bit depressed thinking about how much I will miss many of my holiday traditions and experiences due to Covid, but who is to say we can’t create new ones?
By having Cognitive Flexibility, I had the ability to change what I was thinking and how I was thinking about it, basically cognitive flexibility is the ability to change your mind. So now I am looking forward to the holidays and embracing my “shifts”.
Happy Holidays to all and Be Well.