Executive Function Hacks to Beat Holiday Blues, Even in a Pandemic

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Hey Tribe,

 Oh, by Gosh, by Jolly! It’s time for mistletoe and COVID. ☹

The clash between expectation and reality is a struggle for many of us during the holidays; we dream of magical meals and warm traditions and end up with burned, oddly-textured foods eaten by grumpy people you wouldn’t be friends with but see a few times a year out of obligation. Disappointment hides at the bottom of the pile of dishes every year, to some degree. But that expectation-v-reality clash is going to be especially loud and disappointing this year, as we endure the holidays on lockdown.

Flexible thinking is an executive function that is in high demand right now, and the holidays are going to call upon it loads. Many of the social and food traditions we adore are going to be impossible to make safe during the pandemic. I’ve heard from several friends and family members that they feel like they are choosing between life and love, between happiness and safety, between excitement and that familiar, exhausting, gut-twisting boredom.

But, what if we could challenge our brains to concede that this conundrum is less of a dichotomy and more of a scale of sorts? What if we could call upon the last bits of creativity deep within our brains to solve the holidays-in-lockdown riddle without feeling like we lost the moment we chose?

Right before the fourth of July, I got a giant hole in my hope bucket. I felt like nothing was worth any effort because we couldn’t even safely see fireworks. Sounds strange, but the realization really broke the seal on the other worries floating in my brain, and they leaked into my awareness and then out of my eyes. I couldn’t handle the idea of missing out on fireworks, outside adventures, and socializing and for a short time, that made me absolutely hopeless. It was my realization that I could strategize the pain that helped me uncover the specific feelings I craved that those experiences brought every year. But, the specific experiences, like seeing fireworks or eating BBQ corn, aren’t the only ways to get those feelings.

Today I want to remind you that you can mine your expectations to uncover what you are seeking to feel. Those feelings become the starting point for your new plan. (Listen to episode 26 for the full details. Here’s a quick reminder)

Let’s say you imagine the warm, bubbly feeling you get when spending social time with loved ones at holiday parties. You might dread missing them this year because you treasure the happy, connected feelings these social events give you. Aha! You’re seeking happy, social connections! Now that you have that “end” in mind, you can brainstorm some other ways to achieve it.

And, I’ll pause to address the “yeah but” that you might be cooking up. “Yeah but, it won’t be the same…” or “Yeah but I hate online social crap,” or “Yeah but…” I get it. Those objections are valid and have some good points. Yet, they don’t mean just stop trying. I could “yeah but” anything. I drink water…yeah, but it will be pee eventually. I clean my clothes…yeah, but they’ll be dirty after you wear them again. Get it? Yeah buts are life. It’s okay to live with the paradox of things being alright during a really sucky time.

If you are mourning the loss of the usual holidays, take some time to do so. It’s okay to feel bad sometimes, and it is a real loss. You don’t need to seek something to distract yourself or instantly try to feel  better (looking at you, chocolate that keeps calling to me). When you’re ready, you can address the holiday bummers with two strategies (and, of course, do these with your kid as well)

First, use the strategies from episode 26 to see what specific feelings you hope to get from your holiday experiences. Then, involve the whole family in brainstorming ways to get those feelings, even when being away from loved ones or with cancelled, traditional events.

If the social piece is your biggest desire (you find you want to feel connected and share love), there are a surprising number of great ideas for virtual games and parties. Not cheesy ones either. Some are really great! I’ll link some on the blog (sarahkesty.com/blog/episode26, or  check out Pinterest).You can also think outside the screen! I’m sending my family little care packages, even including an advent calendar with scratch-off squares that reveal family activities for them to try. Just think of the dopamine hit they’ll get every time they scratch to discover a fun idea! You can also consider sending craft materials or recipe ingredients and making things “together” over video. As a bonus, planning an event hijacks our brains in the best way—having something to look forward to is known to help combat the blues and has been reported as one of the things that got people through depression.

If food traditions resonate as a way to connect, maybe you mail some of your favorites to some of your favorite people, along with recipes. Or, handwrite and exchange some recipe cards. It’s okay to ditch tech all together and go with snail mail. Again, that unexpected positive will give your loved ones a boost in dopamine—and you’ll be boosted twice! Once when you send it (imagining their happy reaction) and once when they call to thank you (which will give you a chance to connect at a surprise time!)

A second strategy is to play a “same and different” perspective game. This is particularly helpful for kids in adolescence, as their brains are paving the neuro highways of flexible thinking. It’s a strategy that utilizes the brain’s tendency to be lazy: our brains search for patterns as a shortcut to make meaning out of all the info we constantly get. Handing our brains the patterns, by organizing how we think about things, is a great way to lower anxiety and open up the brain to a more positive outlook. You can’t fear or dread what you understand.

Here’s how it goes:

  1. Make 4 columns on a sheet of paper or a whiteboard.
  2. List the traditions or routines of the holidays in one column
  3. Next to the list, make some notes about how each may be the SAME this year, even in the pandemic.
  4. To the right of that, make a list of how things may be DIFFERENT this year, given the safety rules and concerns.
  5. A final column can be “and it will still be great because…” This column helps take your brain from dread to appreciation. It sounds a little woo-woo, but again it’s based in science. Our brains hate to be wrong. If you prime your brain to start thinking of what WILL be great this season, your brain will start to look for evidence of that. The more you find positives, the better you will feel, the more your brain will think creatively and get you out of the holidays-in-lockdown funk.

A quick note before we wrap: be careful not to project your disappointment onto your kids. I’ve talked with parents recently who are devastated about missing holiday traditions and to their kids, who, in contrast, are not as phased. It’s okay for each person in the household to feel differently about the holidays right now. And, it’s okay if your kid is okay. It doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t care; they are just in a head space that isn’t as impacted by the holiday loss feelings. Lucky them, really! You can lean on them to think of fun, safe things to do. Maybe they can create some new traditions—just think about next year, when we all do our “covid Christmas” or “Coronavirus Kwanza” traditions in celebration of making it through and the odd opportunity we had to grow strong and resilient under frustrating circumstances.

We can’t out-smart the sucky parts completely.

You’ll miss your family, maybe even worry about their health and safety. The spirit may not come together like usual because we are experiencing a very different kind of holiday season. But, different does not always mean bad. And, not all is lost. We will have future holidays in which we can get together safely. We will have parties for no reason, hugs, food tastings at Costco again. We will. We just gotta get through this, together.

Grab that kid. Time for this week’s pep talk.

Hey, Kid!

Almost the holidays…but it doesn’t totally feel like it huh? I think we are all realizing how much our brains like patterns and holiday traditions—not having these things in the same way, with the same people can feel uncomfortable or even sad. It’s okay to feel different emotions right now. It’s always ok to feel emotions. But, we can also use some strategies to make sure those emotions don’t take over our brains.

Today your grownup learned how to think about the holidays in new ways. They learned how to uncover the most important feelings your family wants during the holidays, so that you can brainstorm together how to make these feelings happen, even when we are not able to be with everyone we love or do all the social things we enjoyed in years past. Your grown up also learned some strategies to create new traditions or at least see the best in what you decide to do this year instead.

An important thing you and your grown up need to remember is that this is temporary. It does certainly suck a lot, but being apart and going through a pandemic will not last forever. One day, we will look back and think about the crazy times of Covid, and we might even feel a little love toward ourselves—the strength, perseverance, and wisdom we showed in the face of adversity will color our memories of this difficult time.

So, eat that Thanksgiving meal with your household family and video call with loved ones. If we hang tight now, we will have so much more to celebrate in the coming years! Even today, we have so much to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving and all my love,


Episode 26 for reference

Adventure Challenge (advent calendar) (not an affiliate link; I just really think they’re fun)

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash