These days, multiple factors driving stress and anxiety seem completely inescapable.
There’s the unsettled nature of a divisive presidential election. The global COVID-19 pandemic and movements to eradicate social and racial injustice serve as ongoing public health crises. And the holiday season is nearly here, a calendar anchor that’s further complicated by physical distancing practices.
How do we manage our feelings and avoid hurting the feelings of others in a quarantined household—one that’s possibly divided along political or social lines? How do we tell family members we are skipping the holidays amid the pandemic? And if we do get together, how receptive will family be to declined hugs or asking others to wear masks?
Complicated conversations beget intense emotions.
“These differences have a way of creating division and disconnection in ways they don’t have to,” said Michael Sude, Ph.D.
An associate professor of psychology at La Salle University, Sude also directs the university’s marriage and family therapy master’s program. Individuals can feel strongly on something and still have a curiosity about how someone else feels or an openness to their opinions, he said.
“People sometimes resort to saying, ‘We can’t be together or get along if we have these differences,’ which just isn’t true,” Sude said. “You may not necessarily change your opinion, but you can be curious about others’ thoughts and feelings that you do not understand. Asking questions in a way to imply openness and possibly creating connection, and you can validate the opinions of others and learn about them without agreeing with those different opinions.”
Sude and Kelly McClure, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of La Salle’s psychology department, offered advice on navigating difficult conversations with loved ones, close friends, and others:
Establish a plan for use of your phone, tablet, or television. Perhaps consider placing a limit on consumption of social media or watching television news programs, McClure said. Work closely with your family members, who may have conflicting viewpoints on which channels to watch or how often to have the news turned on.
“These little things can make you feel better throughout the day and help push your mood in a positive direction,” she added.
In homes and households that are also serving as quarantine pods during the pandemic, the idea of stepping away from those with whom you live can be difficult. In a pandemic-free society, that wouldn’t be the case. There would be natural opportunities to create physical and emotional space, like going to work or participating in social events.
“Differences may drive us to get away from those we love the most, and that’s natural,” he said. “Yes, you may live together, but we’re not meant to spend as much time with one another as we have had to during the pandemic. Also, the same solutions don’t work for everyone or every relationship because people and relationships are idiosyncratic and unique.”
Just as we do with media consumption, Sude recommends limits on personal connectivity if feeling overwhelmed. Take a walk, exercise, or listen to music, to name a few activities.
Positivity doesn’t have to be a mindset; it can also be a moment in time. In fact, McClure recommends making a positivity plan and placing it on your calendar. Set aside time each day for activities that inspire you or create feelings of happiness. Get fresh air by doing yardwork or going for a run. Call an old friend. Engage in a hobby or play a game.
“Just a few minutes of something good each day can go a long way,” said McClure. “Those moments of positivity can really add up to an overall sense of feeling good.”
Couples, occasionally, may mention a shared desire to avoid fights or disagreements altogether. Individuals may set out to excise anxiety from their lives entirely.
“Those are not realistic goals. Having no stress is simply unrealistic,” Sude said. “We need to have patience with ourselves and each other. And in moments that we don’t have patience, we may lash out, and it’s important to communicate and find ways to repair the relationship.”
Several studies suggest increases in alcohol consumption among U.S. adults during the pandemic. There has been a lot of talk about turning to alcohol for relief.
“While alcohol in moderation is fine for enjoyment or while socializing, alcohol is not going to help with one’s overall mood,” McClure said. “In fact, it can disrupt sleep and has the potential make you feel worse.”
McClure suggested keeping alcohol use in check and “turning to other things to help you feel good.”
—Christopher A. Vito