Counseling Today, Features

Facing a winter of discontent

By Laurie Meyers November 19, 2020

In 2005, a Welsh psychologist announced that he had created a formula combining factors such as weather, holiday debt, the amount of time elapsed since Christmas and the likelihood of already-abandoned New Year’s resolutions to determine the most depressing day of the year: the third Monday in January, aka “Blue Monday.”

To many people — particularly those in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere — this sounded logical. After all, January can seem a little grim, with its feeble sunlight and frequently unpleasant weather, the end of holiday festivities, and endless commercials for diets and exercise equipment. As we rise in the dark to trudge to work and are again greeted by darkness on the commute home, spring does seem particularly far away.

But the vaunted “discovery” was, in truth, a public relations stunt masquerading as science. Blue Monday and its phony formula were commissioned by a savvy travel agency in the United Kingdom as a faux-scientific excuse for people to stop sitting in their cubicles complaining about dreary weather and book a vacation to someplace warm and sunny.

In 2020, winter arrives toward the end of a calamitous year and with additional challenges beyond the usual seasonal funk. Americans are already reeling from a spring and summer spent isolating and physically distancing to avoid the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It was difficult or unsafe to participate in many of the sun-soaked rituals that normally help buoy people against the coming of winter.

As fall arrived, more than 200,000 Americans were dead, and the country began experiencing another nationwide surge of COVID-19 cases. Many people have lost loved ones. Isolation, lack of contact with friends and family members, and the difficulties of home schooling and working from home have taken a significant toll.

Winter promises more of the same, and what spring might hold is entirely uncertain at this time. The holiday season — which can be difficult for many people under the best of circumstances — is especially fraught this year. Public health experts have discouraged indoor gatherings that include people who do not live in the same household. This directive has left many wondering how — or if — they can celebrate with loved ones.

Unhappy holidays?

In a year when virtually nothing has been normal — “new” or otherwise — the longing for traditional celebrations may be especially intense. But it’s essential for clients to realize that the holidays, like the preceding seasons, will most likely be atypical, says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Stacy Blassingame.

“Most of us are feeling an increasing loss of connectedness to relationships and traditions we’ve come to rely on to give life meaning and purpose,” she says. But clients need not give up on the idea of sharing the holidays with loved ones; their celebrations simply need reimagining, says Blassingame, a member of the American Counseling Association whose specialties include anxiety and family issues.

She helps clients explore what aspects of the holidays have traditionally felt the most meaningful to them — such as baking and cooking, gift-giving, taking pictures or sharing stories — and then identify different ways of incorporating those things into celebrations. Blassingame and her clients have looked into ways of using the entire holiday season, rather than just a day or two, to connect with friends and family via Zoom or even through small, physically distanced gatherings.

One advantage of the increasing incorporation of technology into celebrations is that clients are more likely to include family members who aren’t usually able to travel to in-person gatherings, she points out. “In fact, this summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a Zoom bridal shower that connected me with family members I haven’t seen in years,” says Blassingame, a counselor and managing director at the St. Louis counseling practice Change Inc.

Lauren Ostrowski, an LPC in a Pottstown, Pennsylvania, group practice whose counseling specialties include depression, anxiety and relationship issues, suggests that clients get creative with technology. Instead of gathering in person as they normally would, family members could mail or drop off their gifts and then open them at the same time on Zoom, or use the platform for cooking and eating a holiday meal together, suggests Ostrowski, a member of ACA.

Not everyone views the holidays as a time when all is merry and bright, however. “The holidays are complicated for many people in the best of times,” notes John Ballew, an LPC practicing in the Atlanta area. “For many people, not being able to spend time with those we love has been painful. For others with complicated family relationships, the idea of not being able to visit during the holidays may be more distressing than the actual loss of time with family.” Some clients might tell themselves how awful it is that the pandemic is keeping them from spending the holidays with extended family, when the reality is that the prior year at Thanksgiving, they ate and drank too much and got into a big fight with their relatives, he says.

“Counselors never want to minimize their clients’ experiences,” cautions Ballew, an ACA member. “But helping clients explore what’s really important to them, what’s meaningful, may help alternatives emerge.”

Perhaps a holiday away from family conflict will provide a much-needed break, he says. And if clients end up spending the holidays mostly alone — by choice or not — can they find a way to make the season meaningful in a new way?

“Holiday time is often an overwhelming whirl of shopping, consuming and busyness,” observes Ballew, whose counseling specialties include depression, anxiety, relationship problems and couples counseling. “Yet this time of year also lends itself to reflection and thinking about what is important. Counselors have an opportunity to help clients understand the potential for something good beneath the layers of loss.”

Laura Brackett, an LPC and the director of community engagement at Change Inc. in St. Louis, notes that her clients have been bringing up the holiday season and how different it will be for months in advance. She says that before discussing how to mark the holidays, it was essential for her to understand whether the holidays had historically been a time of celebration or pain for each of her clients and if something — besides the pandemic — was contributing to making this year different from past holiday seasons.

For example, marking the holidays during a year in which a parent died and the pandemic prevented a client’s family members from gathering to mourn is drastically different from welcoming this year’s social distancing as a break from having to travel to four separate places in a 24-hour period, Brackett emphasizes.

“In general, I ask my clients what they need to grieve, to celebrate, to remember and to let go of,” she says. “We also discuss what power they have in deciding what this holiday season will be to them, including if they want to acknowledge it at all.”

Some clients this holiday season may have mixed emotions, including guilt and grief, Ostrowski says. “There are a lot more people who have an empty chair at the table this holiday,” she observes.

Ostrowski helps clients find ways of honoring their absent loved ones, such as decorating a certain way or even just sharing memories with a friend or family member. She also reminds clients that it is OK to experience a moment or time of joy amidst the grief as a kind of gift to themselves. Ostrowski asks clients to notice those feelings — how one part of them may be sad, while another part is enjoying the moment. “You can have two different emotions at once,” she confirms to clients.

A new kind of family conflict

Even among the most even-tempered families, it wouldn’t be the holidays without at least a little conflict. This year, some of the dissent is likely to be about public health experts’ advice against gathering — at least indoors — for the holidays. Family members may have divergent views of what a “safe” gathering looks like.

“Anxiety about these situations is very real,” Ballew says. “It has been called insinuation anxiety: a worry that not agreeing with someone’s choices implies criticism of how they are managing pandemic life. It is important to affirm clients who are rigorous in social distancing if that’s what they’ve decided is the best course of action.”

Ballew also probes for signs that the conflict is an indication of problematic family dynamics. “It isn’t unusual for clients to report that they feel disrespected in long-standing patterns with parents and other family members,” he explains. “Social distancing decisions may be merely the most recent manifestation of this. Coaching them through this involves several steps: identifying the problem and the desired outcome, clarifying their boundaries and choices, then using behavioral rehearsal or role-play to gain some skill in navigating these challenging interactions.

“Many people want family members to validate their choices as a way to ease their own anxiety in the face of uncertainty. I find it helpful to point out how this gives the client’s power away, leaving them at the mercy of people who may have values significantly different from their own.”

Blassingame says many of her clients feel as if the pandemic has ruined large parts of their lives. She says that allowing clients to give voice to all their disappointments often helps them realize that in some ways, they agree with those who are against a socially distanced celebration because they believe it won’t feel like the holidays without gathering in person. Recognizing this allows clients to empathize with family members and approach the conflict feeling more empathetic and centered.

Blassingame adds that some clients also find it helpful to rehearse how to respond to family members who are hurt or disappointed. They can use statements such as, “I’m really sad that it’s not safe for us to get together too. I can’t wait until we’re all together again.”

However, some clients face weightier decisions, she says. “I have also had clients who had to seriously weigh the pros and cons of spending a holiday without aging loved ones, recognizing that this may be their last holiday together,” Blassingame explains. “One client of mine had an open and difficult conversation with her aging parents weighing the pros and cons of not seeing them this year.”

In the end, the client and her parents decided that they would always regret it if they ended up missing a potential last chance to celebrate together. They have decided to spend the holiday together while taking all possible safety precautions, Blassingame says.

Julie Cavese, an LPC with a private practice in Portland, Oregon, proposes some middle ground. She suggests investing in a space heater, decorating the garage or carport and having a few family members over for a physically distanced gathering. Or, clients could suggest that family members take a holiday walk/hike or gather outside with some hot chocolate.

For clients who don’t feel comfortable getting together with extended family, even outside, “I think just being honest goes a long way,” Cavese says. Clients could tell family members that of course they’d love to see them, but they just don’t feel safe doing so. Then they can add that they’re really looking forward to seeing them next year.

Family members may not be happy with that decision, but Cavese asks clients what their priority is. Is it their personal safety and public health? “Or is it keeping the peace at all costs, even if that means Grandma gets sick?” Cavese says.

Welcoming winter

Blue Monday may be a myth, but there’s a reason that it still pops up in news articles every January. Even people who do not experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) sometimes feel more sluggish and unmotivated during the winter. Winter weather can make it difficult or undesirable to go out. Many areas of the country routinely deal with heavy snow, biting winds, sleet and freezing rain or, at minimum, uncomfortably cold rain. Even on sunny days, the light frequently feels a bit anemic.

“I’m finding that as the days get shorter, those whose moods are affected by the changing seasons have started struggling with low mood much earlier than in years past,” Blassingame says. “I can’t help but attribute this to the fact that most of us have spent a lot of time alone and in our homes already this year.”

As Ballew notes, this winter we are facing all the usual challenges without the social stimulation of parties and little pleasures such as concerts and plays. 

Blassingame has been urging all of her clients — with or without SAD — to prepare for the increased isolation of the upcoming winter. Take advantage of the time that can be spent outdoors right now, she advises.

“In many areas of the country, individuals can bundle up and go for walks or even consider fall camping or hiking to take advantage of the outdoors during even the coldest months of the year,” Blassingame says. “I [also] encourage clients to think about the things they love to do during the slower, ‘hibernating’ months of the year and begin preparing for them now by planning winter projects and activities such as home projects, crafts [and] cooking new recipes. Some are stocking up on books to read and movies to watch in anticipation of having more free time. Having something to look forward to can be a beneficial tool to cope with longer periods of isolation.”

“This year, self-care is going to be particularly important,” Ballew adds. “Don’t overindulge in self-soothing by overeating and over-drinking, though don’t completely avoid those pleasures either. Exercise is key. Look for something new to add to routines, or change things up if you get bored.”

Blassingame agrees. “During these long months, I’m urging clients to be mindful of their intake of alcohol … as many are more prone to drinking to cope with loneliness and feelings of sadness. Clients also often need help identifying friends they can ask for support to set them up for greater success as the winter drags on.”

One of Blassingame’s clients is assembling a group of friends to do regular check-ins with each other and to drop off or mail random small gifts, such as a candy bar or a package of tea or coffee, so that no one feels forgotten.

Ballew is encouraging clients to renew contacts with old friends and to stay in closer touch with existing friends. He also urges clients to explore online offerings such as meetups, 12-step groups (if appropriate) and other options.

“With single clients, I often talk about how to use online dating apps effectively during a time when dating looks very different from the way it looked last year,” Ballew says.

“It is also helpful for people to cultivate an appreciation for their relationship with themselves,” he continues. “Encouraging new hobbies or reinvesting in old ones may help them reexperience time alone as something to be valued, not just endured.”

Although clients need to find ways to make winter more enjoyable, they shouldn’t feel an obligation to be “productive,” say Blassingame and Ballew.

“For example, I have one client who, at the beginning of the pandemic, was feeling a sense of guilt over not baking bread, learning a new hobby or expanding her mind through reading a new book,” Blassingame says. “We spent time talking about the messages she received growing up about productivity and laziness.”

The client’s father had taught her that it wasn’t OK to spend time relaxing and recharging, Blassingame notes. “When we explored how she wanted to spend her time of isolation, she shared that she has a list of her top 50 favorite movies that she has always wanted to get around to rewatching,” Blassingame says.

The client realized that she didn’t even want to learn how to bake bread. “During her time at home, she watched quite a few of her favorite movies and is saving the rest for this winter when she anticipates spending more time indoors,” Blassingame says. “Sometimes, we just have to help clients give themselves permission to spend their time the way they truly want to spend it.”

It’s great that some people are spending this time learning or doing new things, Ballew says. “But for most of the people I work with, the pandemic and the changes in work and relationships it has wrought have used up much of their bandwidth,” he adds. “Telling a parent balancing working from home with sketchy child care that they should also be learning to speak another language or learn to play the flute is cruel. Yet that’s what some of my clients have been expecting of themselves.

“Counselors are in a great position to help clients recognize the demands that life is placing on them. In my experience, clients’ No. 1 need is to learn greater self-compassion.”

Everyone has their own optimal level of stimulation, Ballew explains. Some people are stretched thin by the demands of the pandemic, while others are understimulated and bored.

“Counselors need to help clients understand their own situation and how to care for themselves,” he says. “Does a client need more structure to calm some of the chaos around them? Or do they need to add a challenge that they will find meaningful?”

“One recommendation I make for most clients is to take time every day to walk with a partner or by themselves,” Ballew continues. “If they are walking by themselves, listening to audiobooks or podcasts can satisfy the urge to learn or do something meaningful. At the same time, the exercise helps them better regulate their mood.”

It’s OK to take winter as a time for self-nurturance, Cavese tells clients. She urges them to embrace its coziness and let themselves enjoy the wrapping up, hot drinks and movie nights.

Holding on to hope

During the long nights of winter to come, it might be easy to feel as if the coronavirus era is endless.

“I don’t think it’s evident to most [people] that what they’re experiencing during the pandemic is a form of grief,” Blassingame says, adding that just naming and normalizing the grief can be therapeutic. Counselors and clients should also explore what has been lost, both personally and as a society, she emphasizes.

“When some clients are struggling, I’ve found it helpful to just say, ‘This really sucks, doesn’t it?’” Ballew says. “Just acknowledging what is right in front of us can be freeing. Give clients space to talk about frustrations, fears and losses, even if they said pretty much the same thing last week. Many clients are struggling to support others, and the counseling session may be their only opportunity to acknowledge the depth of their loss. The goal is to help clients move to a place of acceptance if they can.”

“It’s crucial for helpers to acknowledge how these times have been tough for them as well,” Blassingame urges. “As paradoxical as it may seem, we can often be more helpful when we resist the urge to fix or remove the grief and pain that clients are experiencing. Be a fellow struggling human being who is walking beside them in the same struggles.”

Brackett also believes that counselors may want to consider self-disclosure. “As counselors, we often appear to our clients like we have it all figured out, even if we don’t intend to present that way,” she says. “Would normalizing an experience with your own life help? For example, a client recently discussed worry about the dropping temperature and how it will limit their ability to see people. While we considered ways to keep connection when outdoor activities aren’t as easy, the part of the conversation that steadied them the most was my own disclosure about that concern: ‘I don’t know how to maintain connection during a global pandemic during holiday season in the Midwest in the winter either, and it’s intimidating! Maybe we can figure it out together.’

“It’s that last word — together — that reminds them that even if they don’t know what to do, someone is with them.”

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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