Time for Change

Managing Stress During the 2020 Holidays

November 16, 2020

This special feature is co-written by Frank Kim, PhD, director of the CU Denver Student and Community Counseling Center, Kristin Kushmider, PhD, assistant vice chancellor of Health, Wellness, Advocacy and Support at CU Denver, and Katherine Miller, MA, advocacy services program manager at the Phoenix Center at Auraria (PCA).

Lynx community, we are in the home stretch of the fall semester. You’ve got this! Fall break is around the corner, final exams are just weeks away, and the holiday season has begun. For many, this time of year can be stressful, joyful, or a combination of both. Most of us will experience varying degrees of stress and joy in the coming weeks. The “normal” stressors typically experienced this time of year are likely to be exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Family gatherings and long held holiday traditions will need to be adapted, individuals are being asked to minimize their travel and gather only with members of their immediate household, the news is perpetuating a scarcity mentality by reminding us that we’re likely to run out of toilet paper and Clorox wipes again, and another graduation season will look different than graduations of the past. As a community, CU Denver has been diligent in caring about individual health and the health of others, but we are not immune to experiencing COVID fatigue or grief over what has been lost.

In addition to the pandemic, many members of our campus community are experiencing high levels of exhaustion as they actively protest racial injustice and take on the burden of sharing their personal experiences of racism in the community in order to help others understand the impact. Some individuals are just coming to realize the extent of systemic racism and are feeling a sense of hopelessness and helplessness as they begin their own journey in identifying what role they want to play in supporting communities of color and what actions they can take to create a more equitable and racially just society.

There’s A LOT going on right now, and we want to help normalize and bring understanding to people’s experiences and help our community find energy to care for their well-being throughout this turbulent time.

Below are some things you should know and some tips for managing stress during this season.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

In the winter and fall there can be changes in one’s mood. Mental health professionals have identified a condition, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is in essence a depressive episode that can regularly occur during this time of year (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Symptoms center on sad mood and low energy, but can also include sleepiness and significant lethargy. In some cases, irritability, crying spells, decreased ability to concentrate, and social isolation can be experienced. Some individuals crave carbohydrates and sugar. There is typically a remission of symptoms in the spring and summer. A less acute, subsyndromal type of SAD is called “S-SAD” or commonly referred to as the “winter blues” (Melrose, 2015).

If you experience significant symptoms, you might consider reaching out to a mental health professional.  Appropriate diagnosis is important, and treatment can include any or a combination of the following:  counseling, antidepressant medication, light therapy, and taking Vitamin D. Consult with your doctor and a mental health professional before seeking out medication.

Increased Isolation

When shelter-in-place orders were given in March, many believed that by the start of the fall semester, things would be relatively back to normal. Moving through the summer, as it became increasingly more clear that social distancing, wearing masks, and limited interactions were going to stay a bit longer, more emotional despair began to set in. We are in a place where we are beginning to hit the lowest emotional point of disillusionment when experiencing a disaster; vacations and trips continue to be postponed, celebrations are virtual (if not canceled altogether), and it’s becoming too cold to sit on a patio. COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations are now on the rise again, which forces us back indoors, and sometimes to be completely alone.

This increasing isolation has clear negative impacts on mental health. Naturally as humans, we want to be connected, even if only within small circles. We are not meant to be alone for such prolonged periods of time. Being socially isolated has caused an increase in anxiety, panic, depression, post-traumatic stress, insomnia, and digestive issues globally (Piertrabiss & Simpson, 2020; Sepulveda-Loyola et al., 2020). Some reports indicate that even social isolation of only up to 10 days can cause pervasive mental health issues even up to three years after the experience (Piertrabiss & Simpson, 2020). What increases the anguish, fear, vulnerability, and feelings of loss of control is that the amount of time we may be required to continue to socially isolate is undetermined.

To provide some perspective, at the CU Denver Counseling Center approximately 30% of all clients seeking counseling did so because of the pandemic. When asked which areas of your life have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, the following results were found:

Life Areas People Who Reported Negative Impact
Motivation / Focus 69.2%
Mental Health 66.9%
Missed Experiences / Opportunities 59.9%
Loneliness or Isolation 59.3%
Academics 58.1%
Career or Employment 50.0%
Fincial 41.3%
Based on 951 total forms.

If you are feeling lonely or isolated, download the Nod app, to help you foster and build social connection.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Feminist poet and activist Audre Lorde has gifted us these famous words in her writing, and when we consider self-care (most particularly for social justice advocates and especially Black women), the weight of these words has often been lost. Self-care has been commodified for a larger market (specifically white women), and has essentially been rebranded as a “spa day.” Not that there is anything wrong with a spa day, but that was not what fueled Lorde’s words. Self-care is a radical act, and we have wildly lost sight of that. Self-care is not always the fun, fluffy things that make us feel good instantly; in fact, a majority of the time it is the much smaller, more difficult, intentional acts that fit the self-care that Lorde is alluding to.

Individuals often report feeling guilty or selfish for caring for themselves when there is so much suffering, when there is always work to be done, when the work is so urgent, and when those in the most pain come from their own communities. As we continue through this pandemic, through political unrest, and strive to be anti-racist as individuals and as an institution, self-preservation is critical. Educator Jamilah Pitts (2020) reminds us that in order to “engage in the work we have been called to, we must be our most powerful selves” (para. 13).

Related Read: Be Kind To Your Mind—Mental Health Awareness and the Psychological Effects of COVID-19

One tool that often gets overlooked is boundary setting. Because the work is never finished, those engaged in social justice work feel that a break is never warranted. We need to create stronger dominant narratives that encourage these advocates to care for themselves. We can start with normalizing boundary setting and respecting that how people engage in resistance may look different. Boundary setting may look like saying no to things that will not fit on your plate, even if it is an event, committee, meeting, etc. Those boundaries may also include having parameters around tasks like checking email late in the evening, and/or responding to them. Boundaries can look like letting someone else carry the torch for just a bit, and sharing that change agent responsibility. We must do these things and respect when others set these boundaries (particularly our BIPOC community), because we cannot be our most powerful selves without honoring what we need.

Pitts (2020) notes that “if we are not well, we cannot fight,” so let’s get radical in our wellness.

Stress Management to Navigate the Holidays

Depending on your circumstances, how one navigates the pressures and stresses of the holiday season will differ, and would look different for different people. Know yourself, and how you are impacted by stress.  We are living through difficult times, and as a consequence we are supposed to be under duress. Acknowledge how you feel, and then do what you can. Be creative and flexible! If you are not able to be present with loved ones, do what you can to connect with them. This can include frequent phone/text communication or Skype/FaceTime. One can even encourage frequent use of social media.

While perhaps not ideal, it is important to create new ways to connect and celebrate traditions. We may not be able to be face-to-face with loved ones and friends, but we are not alone. Perhaps find ways to share experiences and activities over Zoom, such as joint exercise or craft projects. Allow conversations to flow as they would if you were in the same room together. When we participate in shared experience, this becomes part of our personal and relational history, which increases the sense of connectedness.

There are other more general ways to manage the holiday stress. Take time for self-care. This can be as simple as enjoying your morning coffee, or noticing the sunlight streaming through a window. Mindfulness—being in the present moment—even for short periods of time has been shown to be good for one’s mental health. Exercise and hobbies are great ways to feel better. Similarly, deep breathing and muscle relaxation are great ways to reduce the impact of stress. 

Remember to Breathe

If you are feeling tense, try this: Rate that tenseness on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being extremely tense/anxious. Then, take several deep breaths and rate the tenseness again. You should notice a decrease, but if you don’t, then do another set. You don’t have to go down to “0” to feel better, but if you build this into your routine, you will notice that it becomes increasingly more effective.

Stressors like the pandemic, racial violence, intolerance of differences, the systemic oppression of marginalized populations, poverty and environmental injustice can significantly impact the lives, livelihood and mental health of individuals, groups and communities. Being aware and taking action can help to mitigate the deleterious impact of these stressors. This might take the form of developing support systems, education or political activism. If feeling overwhelmed, limit exposure and seek support. It’s ok to hit “pause,” take time to breathe, move and find gratitude.

CU Denver is a strong and resilient community and there are many supports available to members of our campus. For general well-being resources, students, faculty and staff can access YOU@CUDenver. YOU is a web-based platform that is available 24/7 and provides resources and tools for managing election stress, tips for taking action, tools for people of color such as the Liberate Meditation App for the black and African community, tips for managing stress and anxiety, and so much more! Here are some additional resources for those engaged in social justice efforts, Black Lives Matter Meditation for Healing Racial Trauma and The Nap Ministry “Resting is a Form of Resistance”. You can also find additional information about managing holiday stress here.

Want to Talk to Someone in Person?

Students can access the Student and Community Counseling Center for free virtual tele-health sessions, faculty and staff can access the Real Employee Helpline or the Colorado State Employee Assistance Program. All members of the campus community can access the Colorado Crisis Services. CU Denver students, faculty and staff who have experienced interpersonal violence, sexual assault, or stalking can access free confidential services and support through the Phoenix Center at Auraria. We can find comfort and peace in the traditions that typically accompany this celebratory time of year and we can ask for help and support if we are feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or anxious.


  • American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), American Psychiatric Association, Arlington, Va, USA, 2013.
  • Melrose, S. (2015). “Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches”, Depression Research and Treatment, vol. 2015, Article ID 178564, 6 pages, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/178564
  • Pietrabissa, G. & Simpson, S.G. (2020). Psychological consequences of social isolation during COVID-19 outbreak. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1-4.
  • Pitts, J. (2020). Self care can be social justice. Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/selfcare-can-be-social-justice.
  • Sepulveda-Loyola, W., Rodriguez-Sanchez, I., Perez-Rodriguez, P., Ganz, F., Torralba, R., Oliveira, D.V., & Rodriguez-Manas, L. (2020). Impact of social isolation due to COVID-19 on health in older people: Mental and physical effects and recommendations. Journal of Nutrition, Health, & Aging, 1-10.