Social Work professor talks about a Thanksgiving like none other, offers advice for holiday enjoyment

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Most families will experience a Thanksgiving like none other this year due to a resurgence of COVID-19 influencing travel plans and gathering sizes. Auburn University Assistant Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work Anthony Campbell believes there are ample opportunities for people to enjoy the holiday, focus on what makes them thankful and avoid any negativity that may be looming as we conclude what has been a long year for everyone. He offers insight below about everything from positivity, enjoying family, putting differences aside, maintaining mental health and focusing on relationships that create happiness.

There’s no doubt 2020 has been a mentally exhausting year for most everyone. How can Thanksgiving be a boost for people who may be feeling run down, and what advice do you have for people who may be searching for things to be thankful about?

Thanksgiving can be a time to pause and reflect on what is present and good in our lives. This is true every year, but it seems especially important this year. Many have experienced challenging circumstances this year, including difficult transitions, economic hardships, illness and loss of loved ones, and some may have trouble finding things to be thankful for. In the face of such adversity, the holidays are an opportunity to celebrate the people we love and those that we sometimes take for granted in our lives.

This year has been characterized by physical distancing and increased social isolation, and this holiday may be an opportunity to reconnect with special friends and loved ones. It is important to focus on these people, as well as the positive resources and personal strengths that have sustained us throughout this year. Practicing gratitude, for people in our lives in addition to even the smallest of things we are thankful for, can help shift our focus toward a more meaningful present and hope for a healthier, happier future.

Thanksgiving likely will look different for most families this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths climbing in recent weeks. What do you think this holiday may look like for most families, as far as size of gatherings and travel plans, and how will it be different than the norm?

For most, this will not be a normal Thanksgiving. Some families will limit the size of their gatherings, following data from state public health departments showing that increases in COVID-19 infections tend to be linked to larger gatherings. These families may view this disruption of their normal traditions as a challenge, but also as a necessary means to protect the health of family members who may be older or experiencing underlying conditions that place them at greater risk. Many families will find creative alternatives, including attending outdoor socially distanced gatherings or virtual gatherings.

Other families may choose to continue their normal activities, without precautions such as wearing masks, and risk potential spread of the virus to their loved ones. No matter the decisions that individuals and families make, opinions about the pandemic and response will likely be a point of conversation or contention. Ultimately, actions taken by families during this Thanksgiving holiday will partially determine the course of the pandemic, as well as how we experience the remaining holidays of the year.

For families who may disagree about the effectiveness of masks and may base their gathering plans on those beliefs, how important is it for them to find common ground and either compromise or respect each other’s feelings?

At this point in the pandemic, people have developed their own strong beliefs about wearing masks and their effectiveness based on various sources of information. Efforts to convince others to wear or not to wear a mask likely will not change those beliefs. Gathering plans this year should be centered around choices that work for each person and the family as a whole. I think finding common ground, compromise and respect for others’ feelings are very important tasks and, above all, showing love for family and friends in a way that is safe and protects those who are vulnerable is paramount.

With that in mind, some may choose to forego gatherings that do not allow for safe interaction. The bottom line is respecting the decisions of others while making decisions that are right for you and for your family.

With this year’s elections so narrowly decided and the country’s political climate still very much the forefront of people’s minds, there could be even more of a divisive atmosphere when families gather for Thanksgiving. What is the best way for people to leave their differences at the door and come together for some much-needed fellowship?

Let’s face it. It is 2020. Emotions are running high related to many circumstances we have all encountered. It is important to acknowledge the wide range of thoughts and feelings that we and our loved ones are experiencing. I think one of the most important components of relationships is using empathy to gain a better understanding and appreciation of others. This year especially it is valuable to imagine ourselves in the shoes of others and validate their experiences. I also think that in times like these, practicing radical acceptance of our own circumstances may be quite useful. Struggling against the way things are, not accepting reality, or not accepting the experiences of others does not improve the way things are. Acceptance paves the way for meaningful connections with others.

Finally, I suggest discussing something other than the two Ps, politics and pandemic, and instead choosing to focus on the people in our lives for whom we are thankful may go a long way toward a more peaceful and satisfying celebration.

Since the holidays can be stressful times for some, what are some good mental health tips people need to keep in mind the next couple of months to find some joy at the end of what has been a long year?

Beyond the typical tips for managing holiday stress such as engaging in healthy diet, regular exercise and stress management activities, there are two valuable tips that I think are most helpful in navigating the holidays. The first is practicing healthy boundaries by honoring one’s own thoughts, feelings and needs. During the holidays, there are often competing demands from friends and family that conflict with our own needs. Assertively communicating those needs is an important aspect of self-care and may include declining invitations if necessary.

The second tip is keeping the purpose of the holidays in mind, which I believe is focusing on relationships with the people who bring you joy. With all of that said, from a social work faculty point of view, I acknowledge that as a person these strategies may be challenging to implement, but I believe they can help preserve one’s well-being during this difficult time and focus on the purpose of the holidays. Just be intentional in your decisions, while also extending grace to your family and friends.

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