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After a year filled with ups and downs, Joan Bailey isn’t quite where she wants to be for the holidays.

“I had hoped that my partner or I could return home to see our families, but it all feels precarious and unpredictable. … A big part of my heart and head is at home or wants to be at home to celebrate,” says Bailey, a university instructor and writer (and occasional contributor to The Japan Times).

“The unpredictability of (it) all has been hard,” she continues. “If we go, can we get back? Can we even safely celebrate here in Japan with friends?”

All the usual stress around holiday travel is once again being aggravated by the unprecedented challenges brought on by COVID-19.

Albert Siegel finds himself in a similar situation. A photographer in Tokyo, this year he’s been hit with a loss of work, major disruptions to his routine and worry over risks COVID-19 poses to his young children. He and his wife are both vaccinated, but his children are not. He also describes a sense of pandemic-related isolation, and only recently visited his in-laws for the first time in more than two years.

“The youngest boy, he just turned 3 in October,” he says. “And the last time the grandparents saw him, he was just born. So all this has been kind of stressful because it’s so out of the ordinary for everybody.”

Bailey’s and Siegel’s concerns are familiar to many in the international community as we entertain a complicated calculus that includes the virus, travel restrictions, work visas, financial concerns and our own stress and anxiety levels. For many, this mix has meant that holiday travel is simply not feasible — again — this year. That can be frustrating and disappointing, but in some cases it can also be a relief.

Yoon Ki Chai, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California and psychotherapist at TELL, a mental health and suicide prevention nonprofit in Japan, says these themes have been coming up a lot with her clients. In the face of complex emotions, “One kind of basic thing you can do is just naming and acknowledging what you’re feeling,” she says. “Your emotions, both the pleasant ones and maybe the unpleasant ones.”

“It’s working on acceptance, but it’s also about control because if you can identify what you’re feeling and name it, you have more control over it, because you know what it is and then you can take that next step,” Chai continues, adding that you can start to put coping strategies in place, such as breathing exercises or journaling, or even making a playlist for different emotions.

Art is another way to process your feelings. “Even just reconnecting with things that maybe you would see as being more for kids can be really, really helpful because it brings back just that sense of kind of playfulness that I think can be really nourishing,” Chai says.

For her part, Bailey says she has decided to focus on getting outside more, especially since winter is her favorite season, and to start projects that are helpful to others.

“For example, I’m planning to make some favorite holiday foods and figuring out how to contribute to places or organizations in my hometown that help others,” Bailey says. “I think it can help to not just focus inward so much, but also look outward.”

In the field of therapy there’s a concept known as “radical acceptance.” This is when a person fully accepts what life is throwing at them, including things that are out of their control. The acceptance comes as you stop fighting reality and let go of any bitter feelings. It doesn’t, however, mean you agree with things, you just simply acknowledge them as real.

“You know, none of us can control the situation,” Siegel says. “And I think that when we begin to accept that some things are to a degree, or maybe even totally, out of our control, we just accept that sometimes things are what they are and just learn to deal with it.”

Bailey is working on maintaining connections, even if she can’t be with certain loved ones physically.

“I talk to my mom each week, but I’ve been calling her a bit more of late just to randomly check in,” she says. “I will also say that everyone is getting a few more presents than usual. A different kind of shopping therapy, I guess. I’m trying not to take anything or anyone for granted here or at home.”

In addition to reaching out to people, Chai recommends planning things that are nurturing for yourself, too.

“Sometimes it’s hard for people to think about themselves, but imagine that you’re creating a special day for someone else,” she says. “What would you do, what would you plan? And then see if you can do that for yourself.” This might include creating a personal, meaningful ritual, honoring something that’s important to you.

But Chai says not to put too much pressure on yourself. It has been a hard couple of years. “Be a good friend to yourself, and try to put aside unhelpful expectations and just appreciate or enjoy the things that you’ve planned for yourself.”

Selena Hoy is the outreach coordinator at TELL. If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit telljp.com.

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