Minding the Mind at Christmas
Professor Brendan Kelly Photo by Ruth Medjber

Minding the Mind at Christmas

The Covid-19 pandemic makes the Christmas break both more complicated and more necessary than ever.

How can we navigate the holiday, the festivities and family gatherings, so that we connect with each other, enjoy the break, and stay as safe as possible? We need Christmas, so it is important to plan it well.

The first thing to remember is that people are in very different places with their experiences, beliefs and anxieties about Covid.

With this in mind, try to make it easy for people who want to hold back a little, people who prefer smaller gatherings, and people who are a little embarrassed by their anxiety. We need to give each other a lot of leeway this year.

If you are hosting a gathering, be sure to invite everyone whom you are comfortable to have but offer face-saving ways for people to say no if they wish.

Many people will cut back to just a few key gatherings this Christmas, and we should respect that. Different people have different levels of anxiety.

Following public health guidance will reassure many people: limiting numbers and pointing out that anyone with symptoms should not attend any gatherings.

Planning is everything. Many people treated Christmas like a military operation prior to the pandemic, and this approach has finally come into its own.

For example, if you are hosting, try to leave some chairs outside if you can, so that people who are anxious can sit outside without needing to attract attention by asking.

If you are not happy when you arrive at a gathering, just go home. As host, if someone suddenly says that they want to go home early, invite them to stay, but do not pressure them: just accept that they might be acting out of anxiety or grief that you do not understand. They might be more comfortable at home. We need to respect that.

We cannot avoid talking about Covid. So, rather than banning the topic from the dinner-table from the get-go (which is tempting), maybe discuss it for a while and then forbid any Covid-focussed discussions for an hour.

If people engage you in long one-to-one conversations about Covid, the best strategy is to listen without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing.

Many such conversations are fuelled by anxiety and grief, more than logic. Listening is the best possible gift.

Many people want to tell their story from the last few months in great detail. You do not need to agree with their position or decisions, but listening is a powerful form of validation.

Plan activities. A physical activity like walking is the best way to interrupt negative thoughts, anxieties or conversations that stubbornly refuse to move on from Covid. Focusing on children, gifts, and pets also helps.

Alcohol fuels both doom-laden conversations and breaches of Covid regulations. This will make many people anxious and will increase the risk for everyone.

That is not to say that this has to be an alcohol-free Christmas, but maybe an alcohol-aware Christmas, in the interests of everyone.

Finally, devote time to an activity that absorbs you over the Christmas break, be it gardening, music, running, swimming, knitting, jigsaws, meditation or yoga. Sometimes, becoming lost in the moment is precisely what we need.

In the words of philosopher Henry David Thoreau: “Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulders”.

Happy Christmas!

Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, Consultant Psychiatrist at Tallaght University Hospital, and author of ‘The Science of Happiness: The Six Principles of a Happy Life and the Seven Strategies for Achieving it’ (Gill Books).

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