It felt like we blinked and suddenly went from March to November. For many, the holiday season of 2019 doesn’t feel like that long ago, considering we’ve basically been quarantined inside for the better part of the year. And with so much unpredictability around us — the election, COVID-19 vaccine trials, when life will feel more ‘normal’ — you may be dreading these seasonal celebrations. After all, there have been many ups and downs, causing everyone to feel out of sorts and exhausted. The mere thought of pulling out the ornaments from the attic could feel overwhelming.
Rather than forgoing decorations and throwing in the towel on 2020, psychologists actually recommend going all out. From front door wreaths and tablescapes to indoor-and-outdoor light displays, these touches do more than add color and cheer; they do wonders for our psyche, too. Here, experts explain how and why:
It can be a great distraction
If you experienced feelings of isolation and being trapped or stuck during the pandemic, you aren’t alone, according to licensed clinical social worker Alyssa Hickey, LCSW. Because many days blur into one another, she says it’s normal to grow weary and even anxious over the same ‘ole routine. However, when you add a new element — like decorating for the holidays — we show our brains that time is passing. This challenges us to think about hanging up items, figuring out lighting approaches, and so on rather than focusing on the quarantine’s dread and gloom. “This kind of distraction often relieves stress. And since decorating can be a continuous activity, we can return to it as time passes. In a sense, decorating is a little piece of joy in chaos and repetition,” she adds.
It reminds us of happier times and traditions
A few years ago, your grandmother passed down her first Menorah to you. Or, you’re still holding on to that ornament from your baby sister’s first Christmas. Maybe the scent of pumpkins reminds you of a super-fun family road trip decades ago through New England. Familiar holiday decorations trigger our nostalgic, happy memories about ourselves and our loved ones, which help our brains cope with current stressors, according to licensed psychologist Kathryn Esquer, PsyD, MBA. By sorting through these items, she says we’ll be in a more hopeful mood, despite being apart from our family this season.
And with these sweet mementos hanging around our home, we may experience increased happiness throughout the end of the year. As one 2019 study in the journal of Nature Human Behavior found, people who turn to feel-good memories during high-anxiety times could release those negative thoughts. “We should be doing everything in our power to boost our ability to handle stress and maintain a positive mood,” Esquer adds.
It can be emotionally energizing
It’s okay if there are some days when getting out of bed in the morning feels like an enormous task. And it’s okay if you take a mental health day to cope. But if those days are becoming more frequent, decorating your apartment or home for the holidays could provide a dose of emotional energy, according to psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. Plus, vibrant colors can shift our spirits. As Dr. Thomas explains, blue can make us feel calm and safe, green can help us to feel relaxed, refreshed and revitalized, yellow can evoke happiness, hope and cheer, red can encourage passion and empowerment, and so on.
“When people are unable to be with their loved ones, decorating using traditional holiday colors could be emotionally beneficial. Be it red and green for Christmas, blue and white for Hanukkah, black, red, and green for Kwanzaa, and so on,” she shares. “It can be uplifting and comforting using those colors which generally represent the holidays to you as well as positively remind you of your previous holiday celebrations with family and friends.”
As she explains, decking the halls requires us to be creative, proactive and productive, helping us fight against feelings of apathy or lethargy.
If the thought alone of decorating brings you dread, though, take it slow, Dr. Thomas recommends. Rather than thinking of it as a colossal project, break it down into bite-sized pieces. “You could identify and divide what needs to be done into manageable chunks that you have the energy to do each day, and then feel good about accomplishing what you get done with each piece,” she recommends.
It gives you back some control
One of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic is releasing the control we once had over our daily lives. Right now, it feels impossible to plan into the future, with travel bans preventing us from an international beach vacation and changing COVID-19 guidelines and stats that open and close businesses. While it impacts everyone, typically, type-A planners may feel more on-edge as they learn to remain in the present. It may seem elementary and non-consequential, but Esquer says decorating your home returns some of your power. “Shifting our focus to what we can change, rather than focusing on what we can’t control, allows us to maintain a hopeful and optimistic perspective of the future,” she continues. “When we feel overwhelmed with ambiguity and uncertainty, shift your focus to smaller areas of your life or your world that are within your control.”
It inspires us to create new traditions
Since you may not be able to make the journey to your hometown this year, Esquer says you may feel excited to create new traditions. While they may not look the same as the ones you’re used to, the act of brainstorming and getting creative creates hope and allows us to infuse a sense of humor and optimism into a stressful situation. “Plus, continuing the holiday tradition after the pandemic has resolved will remind you to enjoy the freedoms that may be absent this year,” she continues.
One idea is to decorate the spaces in your home where you spend the most time, like whatever office set-up you have created. “Incorporate nostalgic decorations and joyful photos to reflect on during the workday can help deal with stress and lonely feelings you may have, especially not being able to be in the workplace during the holidays,” she recommends.
It creates connections with humanity
Some of the most inspiring stories to come out of quarantine illustrated how strangers join together during a crisis. Think of the couple who met via rooftops in New York City, the clapping for healthcare workers throughout many major metros, nightly sing-a-longs from balconies in Italy and Spain, and workout classes in courtyards. In your own community, the act of decorating your home will help to create connections with your neighbors, who may be inspired by your holiday spirit and follow suit. This creates a ripple effect of happiness in humanity, making everyone feel more connected, according to Hickey. “Being excited about the holidays is something that many of us have in common. So, we can quite literally share joy through decorating,” she shares. “Decorations can even prompt small conversations with our neighbors. Relationships at all levels make us feel happier and safer.”
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