5 Tips to Help Therapists Rethink and Cope with the Holidays 

2020 has been an extraordinarily challenging year for therapists. Therapists have been navigating a global health pandemic, virtual schooling while remote working (on unfamiliar telehealth platforms), the fight for racial justice, economic instability, employment insecurity, loneliness and a host of other challenges faced by their clients and themselves. 

The impact of COVID-19 has been staggering.

And, let’s not forget the election year stress that has triggered so much strain in relationships. 

Never mind, let’s forget it for now.

Some call this season “the most happiest time of the year,” but as healers we have been stretched thin and this holiday season may not provide the reset that we typically look forward to.  

With CDC guidelines placing restrictions on travel, this holiday season will undoubtedly look different for our clients and for us. This time of the year is usually when many of us take time off to spend quality and extended time with friends and family. For many of us, that’s not possible. And for me (Chinwé), it’s been particularly distressful as I lost my mother-in-law this summer and I’ve not seen my parents who live in Charleston since last Christmas.  This is the first time in 30 years, I (Mary) have not traveled to Maryland to see my brothers and parents.

In a year that has already been so challenging, the holidays—which can be stressful even without a global pandemic—can take an additional toll on mental health. As front-line mental health responders caring for the acute emotional needs of our clients during an unprecedented season, we are particularly vulnerable to vicarious distress.  

Here are a few tips for alleviating 2020 holiday stress and getting ready for the new year:

  1. Embrace the pause. 2020 has caused an abrupt shift in our routines and as helpers and healers, we find ourselves doing more and more to meet the needs of our clients. COVID-19 has placed us in a position of figuring out how to do more with less. Less certainty, less predictability, and less support—leaving us more stressed and overwhelmed. There may be a win here. With potentially less traveling, we may have dialed down the hectic holiday buzz and the array of seasonal demands (e.g., shopping, driving, cooking), allowing for more breathing room. Maybe the “reason for the season” is not in the doing but in the pause.  I (Mary) have to admit that the introverted part of me has not minded some aspects of this pandemic. Especially the part about not feeling obligated to attend social gatherings when I would rather binge watch “This is Us!” 


  1. Continue to pivot. This unique holiday season could actually offer some opportunities. With hopefully fewer demands, this might be a time to reevaluate values and priorities. Try to find ways to simplify your life by implementing new systems or just mini-habits.  For me (Chinwé) the quarantine period allowed time to put some practices in place that enabled me to feel more productive. I am now a big fan of the 5-minute rule—if it takes less than 5 minutes to complete—I do it right away. Completing small tasks, first, that don’t really require a lot of time (or thought) helps me to stay more organized throughout my day. 


  1. Lean into your supportive networks. 2020 has highlighted the critical need for community. Prior to the global health pandemic, our nation was experiencing a loneliness pandemic. Mental health professionals, particularly those in private practice, regularly experienced feelings of isolation. Even if we are sheltering with a household of people (and even pets), the holiday season can trigger feelings of loneliness and disconnection. This season, be sure to connect with a trusted community of friends or family members, even if it is remotely. Reach out to other therapists that you can lean on for both clinical support and companionship.  We remedy aloneness for others, but often we forget that we need support too.


  1. Re-engage with self-care. Self-care is critical—perhaps more now than ever before. Most of us drill this in to our clients. But, let’s face it, we therapists still don’t practice enough self-care for the work that we do. Especially in 2020.  Moreover, for some, the term self-care still conjures up glossy Instagram images or television commercials of fancy Sandal vacations, fun girls’ trips, or a luxurious spa weekend with massages and facials. While all of that sounds really great—they may not be safe to do right now. Fortunately, even in an economic pandemic, self-care can be practiced with little to no financial investment. Consider taking one day off each month for a mental health day. If that feels tough financially, what about taking 3 hours off each month to just focus on you? Go for a walk, listen to your favorite music, or meditate. I (Chinwé) carved out time to read several great, non-therapy related books. I (Mary) have increased my presence in nature. The sights and sounds of my daily walks cause me to reflect on the spiritual aspects of everyday living which resets and comforts me.


  1. Re-imagine holiday gatherings. Maybe it’s time to re-imagine the holidays altogether! Recently, at a wonderful virtual event, I (Chinwé) along with two fellow therapists discussed how to make this season special when we aren’t engaging in our usual holiday traditions. Check out the Cultivate Gathering replay here. While there are certainly disappointing parts of this unique holiday season, what are some aspects that bring you joy? Therapists are wonderful with reframing! I (Chinwé) am so looking forward to NOT traveling and quietly bringing in the new year with my immediate family. Maybe you’re looking forward to shifting some family expectations. Or engaging in some new holiday traditions. Consider creating a new family ritual, that can be done in-person or via Zoom, that says goodbye to 2020 and welcomes 2021. 


What are you grateful for in 2020 or most looking forward to in 2021?


We are grateful to announce that SCTI is now an approved NBCC provider! We are also very grateful to our SCTI community! We look forward to bringing you a full calendar of workshop events for 2021, so stay tuned and be sure to check back with us! If you’d like to be on our email list to learn about upcoming workshops, let us know here.  


Written by Chinwé Williams, PhD and Mary Gay, PhD, Co-founders of Southeastern Counselors Training Institute (SCTI).