Who doesn’t love Thanksgiving? No worrying about gifts! We get to focus on food, (one our favorite things!) and people, relationships, family, friends (more favorites! And, of course, gratitude. 

Tips to Have a Happy Pandemic Thanksgiving

This year it feels all turned upside down. The focus has shifted from being with people to how to best avoid them. Rather than gratitude, we feel frustrated and guilty. Frustrated that we can’t fulfill everyone’s wishes. Mom insists that you come over for the traditional family feast with cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. “But it’s just not safe, Mom! I’m looking out for you!” But she just sees you being selfish and disrespectful. Which leads us to guilt.

Or maybe your family is chill with everyone staying safe in their bubbles and ordering in your pandemic Thanksgiving dinner. That still can make us sad. But who wants to be sad for the holiday? How can we still make this a joyous time?

Here are my personal tips for getting through a pandemic Thanksgiving:

  • Acceptance is key. You know those five stages of grief (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance). Well, yeah. you have to get through the first four, but once you do and you get to acceptance, life is a lot easier. Accepting means you aren’t fighting the inevitable anymore. Accept your smaller, quieter Thanksgiving and you will begin to see the advantages of it rather than what’s missing.
  • Have a hug fest. Whoever is in your safety bubble, friend, partner, dog, cat… give them a hug. Let them hug you back. If you are alone, hug yourself. Do this periodically throughout the day. Research shows that hugging releases oxycontin, a neurotransmitter, and endorphins, also a neurochemical, both of which induce feelings of relaxation, contentment. Together with deep, slow breathing, a good hug is better than a stiff drink.
  • Get out of your head. Activities help this, whether it’s everyone getting outside for a walk or a rousing game of cornhole, having an impromptu dance party or teaming up for charades, getting up and moving literally breathes life into the festivities.

Reflecting on all this, I asked the therapists at Explore What’s Next to share their thoughts on how to make this pandemic Thanksgiving a happy event. I saw themes in what we all said. Humor is essential. Acceptance of the negative feelings that arise like guilt, sadness and grief helps. Be clear and assertive about your level of comfort and safety. Apply creativity, to make this pandemic Thanksgiving into a whole new kind of celebration. 

And most importantly: Choose gratitude over resentment. 

Here, in their own words, EWN therapists share their tips for you to enjoy this one and only (please God)…

Pandemic Thanksgiving:

Clara Kumtz, Ph.D.

This is a time of opportunity, an open door, to try something new; whether it is being creative with how to do an old tradition while social distancing or creating a completely new tradition. It is a time to flex our creativity, humor, patience, and love that transcends boundaries and barriers. 

Tacianna Indovina, Ph.D.

  • Identify your values and see how you can live those values safely. For example, I value connection. In past years, I’ve shared holidays between the homes of my family and my husband’s family. This year will look a little different but we can still connect in smaller, more intimate gatherings and use technology. 
  • Communicate your boundaries. Be clear about how you define being safe. Identify what you’re comfortable with and communicate that. Listen actively to what others express. It can be awkward up front: I never thought I’d be gauging who I see based on how many people they were within the last two weeks. Direct, clear communication hopefully results in everyone being respectful and more comfortable. 
  • Allow space to grieve. This year sucks. It’s lonely. There is a loss, of life, of freedom, and of certainty. Ignoring that is dismissive and unhelpful. We don’t want to wallow, but we also want to acknowledge the situation for what it is.
  • Practice gratitude. Without minimizing the aforementioned grief, reflect on what you’re grateful for, both big and small.

Kate Maleski, LCSW-R

  • Having a different holiday celebration doesn’t mean the Holidays are canceled. Different doesn’t need to be bad. Sometimes “plan B” can be better than “plan A”!
  • Plan ahead. Plans help decrease uncertainty. Make a plan that is safe and somewhat reliable.
  • Focus on the small wins. Even though there may be disappointments it doesn’t mean there isn’t good around us. 
  • Laugh! Humor always helps.
  • Welcome new traditions. Kids are especially great with this one.

Michelle Woogen, Psy.D.

Traditions often help recharge our batteries. With our holidays being turned upside down, many of us won’t have the opportunity to experience our traditional holiday festivities and run the risk of our batteries not getting recharged. 

You can actually have some control on how drained you end up feeling It’s all about how you ultimately perceive the situation. Yes, no matter which way you spin it, this is a sad, frustrating, and stressful time. But if you challenge your brain to think of a realistically positive perspective, you can help keep yourself from falling into mental darkness. 

For example, when you find yourself thinking, “I can’t believe I don’t get to see Mom this year for Thanksgiving,” try counterarguing that thought with something like, “Yes, this situation is lousy, and I’m thankful I can at least still speak to Mom this year. And next year’s holiday together will feel so much more valuable.” 

For those of us who lost someone this year, the same approach truly does work. When you think about that empty seat at the table this year, counterbalance those sad images with, “I am very sad that Grandma won’t be with us this year, and I want to spend the holiday in a way that would make her proud.” This is a very different and draining year for us all; remember you have the power to buffer the effect it is having on you. 

Christine Frank, LCSW

2020 has been, without a doubt, a crazy and challenging year in so many ways. I’m noticing many people feeling burned out as we approach the holiday season, and the desire and obligation to spend time with family is looming.  

I tend to be one to struggle with guilt surrounding meeting the expectations of others and keeping everyone in my family happy. This is the year to challenge any guilt-driven behavior and follow whatever precautions you need to feel safe.  

Not everyone in your family may be happy about your choice, and you may still feel the guilt. That’s okay.  Stick with where you feel safe, whatever that may be, and make a gratitude list this holiday season to remind yourself that there are still things to be thankful for.