Science

Managing Emotional Polarization This Holiday Season


In an ordinary year, holiday angst is very real: Anxiety, depression and stress are all known to spike between Thanksgiving and the year’s end, as social engagements, travel and bills for holiday gifts simultaneously surge. Yet 2020 has been far from ordinary, so we must expect that this holiday season will be unusual.

This year has been characterized by extremes. Health care faced a crisis of epic and dangerous proportions, yet medical innovation is at an all-time high. Financial markets experienced both staggering losses and colossal gains. As for the election … does that even need to be explained? Along these lines, when it comes to our emotions this holiday season, we must expect emotional polarization: We will simultaneously feel better and worse than ever.

Let’s start with the good news.

General holiday stress stands to be lower than in typical years since social expectations are diminished, and there is greater acceptance of human limitations and struggles. No one will take it personally if our gifts or meals aren’t “perfect” this year, as long as we acknowledge our struggles. That creates less pressure when it comes to our performance and our appearances. Perhaps for the first time in history, it is tolerable—even respectable—to be up-front with others when we are having a hard time.

Along these lines, pure introverts who are truly timid and shy are likely to breathe a sigh of relief this holiday season, as COVID-19 risks provide a socially acceptable reason to decline invitations to holiday parties and get-togethers. This is serendipitous, since 2020 has been chock-full of social landmines such as discussions about the election, masking, diversity/inclusion, homeschooling, and the future fate of our economy (in addition to “the usual” contentious conversation topics such as money and family).

The best reason to feel better than usual this holiday season is that 2020 is nearly over! With the specter of the election behind us, and the very real potential for a vaccine around the bend, it’s hard not to feel hopeful and optimistic.

However, there are also unique challenges that lie ahead.

The biggest concern is potential angry exchanges over contentious issues of the day. Political polarization, sentiments about mask wearing, and issues related to racial inequality are just a few potentially explosive conversation topics when engaging with family, friends and co-workers. For many people this year, discussing these issues turned Thanksgiving into Angstgiving.

Additionally, single extroverts who live alone are likely to find themselves in particularly challenging circumstances this holiday season. Such individuals thrive on social engagement and are likely to feel deprived as holiday parties go socially distant or online this year. Because of these trends, depression stands to hit an all-time high as we round the bend into 2021, since social isolation is a key contributing factor to sadness and anhedonia.

The biggest concern ahead is that 2020 may not end well. There remains so much that is unknown and uncertain about the electoral transition, the dramatic recent spike in COVID cases, the question of how quickly and fairly vaccines will be distributed, and the economy. Many expect that 2021 will be choppy, at least out the gate, and there is certainly good reason for concern about such predictions.

How can we navigate the vicissitudes of emotional polarization as the year to end all years finally winds to an end?

First, we must simply recognize our vulnerability for emotional polarization. When the human body experiences infection, high degrees of inflammation are coupled with frantic efforts of the immune system to quell the fires. Similarly, when we experience extreme emotional states such as exhilaration and ecstasy, we become more likely to experience anguish and desperation. In severe cases this can manifest as bipolar disorder, but in the majority of instances, disparate and even conflictual emotional states are very nothing to be concerned about, in of themselves.

Second, we must be wary that emotional polarization can give way to maladaptive behaviors, which can perpetuate distress and lead to impairment, or worse. Left unchecked, the excitement about being done with 2020 can lead to elation and increase vulnerabilities to engage in risk-taking behaviors. Conversely, antagonistic interactions with family and friends can ruin lifelong relationships; recent data suggest that political differences are a significant factor in breakups and divorces.

Finally, we can gain some emotional equilibrium and limit emotional polarization, by slowing down and being mindfully aware of how we feel. We may wish for this year to be over, but instead of rushing through the final weeks, we’ll be better off setting aside just a few minutes each day to calmly reflect on how we feel, and to take inventory of our actions over the previous 24 hours. By attending to our emotions and slowing down our responses, we can reset the balance as we navigate through what will hopefully be the end of this tumultuous period of history.


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