We’ve made it to the end of 2020! From polarizing politics to raging fires to COVID-19, it’s been a real doozy. And now the holidays… Do we celebrate with loved ones and risk COVID or take a pass? What are the risks?
In today’s show, our guest Dr. John Grohol, founder of Psych Central, explains how this isn’t going to be our regular holiday season and that’s okay: We can easily make lemonade out of lemons.
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Guest information for ‘Dr. John Grohol- COVID Christmas’ Podcast Episode
John M. Grohol, Psy.D. is a pioneer in online mental health and psychology. Recognizing the educational and social potential of the Internet, he founded Psych Central in 1995 as one of the first mental health and psychology sites that offered information about the symptoms and treatments of mental disorders, including interactive screening quizzes and self-help tools. Dr. Grohol transformed the way people could access mental health and psychology resources online, and his leadership has helped to break down the barriers of stigma often associated with mental health concerns, bringing trusted resources and support communities to the Internet.
He has worked tirelessly as a patient advocate to improve the quality of information available for mental health patients, highlighting quality mental health resources, and building safe, private support communities and social networks in numerous health topics.
Dr. Grohol has a Master’s degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University and sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior. He is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, and is the author of The Insider’s Guide to Mental Health Resources Online (Guilford).
About The Psych Central Podcast Host
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Dr. John Grohol- COVID Christmas’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of The Psych Central Podcast, I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today, we have Dr. John Grohol. Dr. Grohol is the founder of PsychCentral.com and a frequent guest on our show. He has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. John, welcome to the show.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Great to join you again, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: Well, we’re certainly glad that you’re here. Now, pretty much every year since its inception, The Psych Central Podcast has made it a point to do an episode on surviving the holidays, managing holiday expectations, topics surrounding keeping our mental health strong during the hustle and bustle of the season. Last year when I was recording that episode, I thought to myself, haven’t we covered this ground? Can’t someone just go listen to the previous year’s episodes and get all the insight they need? Am I just repeating myself? The point being was I figured I’d skip the Surviving the Holidays episode in 2020 because I just really felt like we’d covered all the ground there was to cover. And then enter COVID. And it did create an entirely new set of issues surrounding the holidays. Now, Dr. Grohol, as a doctor and a researcher, you’ve taken the unpopular yet practical stance of recommending that people do not meet in person for the holidays.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Well, to clarify, we probably shouldn’t be meeting outside of our family bubble, which is just your immediate family, so if your family unit of two, three, four people, those are the people that should get together. You shouldn’t be inviting extended relatives.
Gabe Howard: In my family, we get together like once a year and we’re coming from many different states all over the country, there’s 20 of us all in my parents’ 1800 square foot ranch house. That’s the kind of thing that you think should be put on hold this year.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: You have, you can think of as you have a risk bucket every week and every time you go out and have to interact in public, even with a mask, even with social distancing, you’re adding a little tiny water to that risk bucket. And so over the course of a week, you might have a quarter bucket full of risk that you’ve taken in terms of increasing your risk of catching COVID-19. Now, if you have a big family gathering and let’s be honest, people aren’t going to wear masks, you have to take them off to eat, to drink. So there’s no safe way of really having that kind of large family gathering without basically filling up your bucket for that week and overflowing with potential risk for catching COVID-19. And that’s what too many people have done over the past month or two, is that they’ve taken the ability to go into a restaurant or a bar indoors and take off their masks and aren’t social distancing. And that’s why we’re seeing the great rise in new cases. It’s a question of how safe do you want to be? Do you want to get out on the other side of this pandemic alive and in good health? And more importantly, do you want your family members to get on the other side of the pandemic alive and in good health? Obviously, you don’t need to just think about yourself here. You need to think about your family members and especially those who are older or have preexisting health conditions, which is most Americans actually.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that I think that is important to point out is that for better or for worse, the way that America has handled the pandemic is to let each state decide, well, really for itself on how to handle it. So, for example, I’m in Ohio. My family is in Tennessee. It’s a world of difference. I don’t think Tennessee ever closed restaurants, whereas Ohio did for a period of time. So just think that it’s important to point that out because perhaps getting together in Ohio, if the entire country handled it like Ohio, might be OK. The reason that I bring this up is do you think that this is contributing to some of the unrest that’s happening in families where people in different states are looking at each other like, why are you canceling Christmas? We’ve done everything right. Why are you canceling our get together? We’ve been masking up. We’ve been prepared for this. But in reality, depending on where you live, you may have done literally nothing.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Let’s get to the meat of the matter. The virus doesn’t care about state policies. The virus doesn’t care about national mandates or masking mandates. The virus is going to spread any time you’re indoors with other people. And one of those people may be asymptomatic. They have no symptoms of the virus and they’re infected and they don’t know. And that’s how it’s being spread. It’s not being spread by people who have symptoms because they clearly understand, hey, wait a minute, I might have the virus. I’m going to go get a test. It’s the people who don’t have symptoms, which is most people who get the virus and especially younger people, children and young adults who get the virus typically do not show symptoms. They are active carriers of the virus, are coming into your family of 20 or 30 people. And guess what? They’re going to spread it. No one’s wearing masks. There’s no social distancing. It’s indoors. That is exactly the kind of environment the virus seems to like.
Gabe Howard: I like what you said about the virus doesn’t care about state policies, the virus doesn’t care about politics, the virus doesn’t care about, frankly, these petty arguments. But families, well, they care very much about these things. And in previous years, whenever I’ve done surviving the holidays, it’s always, OK, you’re sitting around the table, somebody brings up an unpopular opinion. Everybody starts arguing, how do you manage your own mental health? Now we’ve got that going on. We are spread out more, but families are not in agreement about whether or not to cancel plans. And the group that is pro canceling the plans and the group that is not pro canceling the plans, they’re getting in a lot of disagreements. Do you have some mental health advice on how to manage those family disagreements so that everybody is safe?
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: We all have to understand, look, families aren’t going to agree on everything. They may not agree on politics. They may not agree on this and that and the other thing and that’s fine. That’s adults being adults. When it comes to family gathering of this nature in this extraordinary time, this is a once in a lifetime event. I still don’t think people have that centered in their minds that they think either it’s not as bad as people say it is or this is just like the seasonal flu a little bit worse or something like that? No, this is a once in a century pandemic that is very contagious, much more contagious than I think we probably initially thought. And so for families to disagree about this, that’s perfectly OK. What has to happen at that point is whenever a family member disagrees with another family member, you’re not going to convince anybody. Right? You’re not going to change people’s minds. If people don’t believe in science today or they don’t believe the scientists, you’re not going to have a discussion with them where all of a sudden they’re going to be like, oh, yeah. Now that you have shown me the scientific data, I completely understand your point of view. I mean, that’s not going to happen. So here’s what you have to do. You have to gracefully bow out of the family gathering this year.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: It’s that simple. You have to say, look, I appreciate that you guys are all getting together. Me and my partner, we’re going to say thanks, but no thanks. We’ll join you on a Zoom call. Let’s have a Zoom call. We’ll get together virtually this year. It’s one year. We’re asking people to be safe for one Christmas, one New Year’s. I know it sounds like this is you’re taking away my freedom. Hey, look, the virus doesn’t care about your freedom. The virus will kill you, whether you’re freedom loving or you think that somehow public health officials are dedicated their careers and their lives to taking away your freedom. And if family members aren’t going to be respectful of your decision. Well, that just says something about family, right? That’s the way family is sometimes. And there’s not a lot you can do to change that interpersonal interaction over this one thing, because it’s a long-standing concern, a long standing issue in that family.
Gabe Howard: It really sounds like what you’re saying is that families disagree about things all the time and you can’t let this hit you any harder than any other political, religious, parenting, financial, whatever your family normally spends the holidays fighting about. It’s basically the same. It’s a disagreement within the family that needs managed in exactly the same way.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Yes, exactly, that’s exactly it.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be back in one minute after these messages.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Dr. John Grohol discussing COVID’s impact on the holiday season. John, my family canceled Christmas and I don’t get to see my family, but pretty much once a year, usually at Christmas, and this was difficult for my family to manage because I was one of those families where half of us wanted to get together and half of us didn’t. What I said to my family was, look, what if let’s say that we all get together, we all have Christmas, we all have a wonderful day, and then somebody gets COVID and gets very sick or heaven forbid, even dies. Is that the memory that we want of 2020, is that the risk that we want to take? Strangely, I wasn’t worried about the person who got sick or passed away. I was worried about what would happen to our family, the survivors. How would the survivors take it? This would extend this trauma forever. Is that a reasonable thing to be concerned about?
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: It’s one way of looking at the situation and certainly a rational and logical way of looking at it and saying, hey, what about the worst-case scenario? Because that’s how we make a lot of decisions in our lives. We look at the risk ratio and say, is it really worth, you know, going skydiving with, you know, the 0.01% chance of parachute failure or something? And some people look at that and say, nah, it’s fine, I’m more likely to get hit by lightning and they jump out of a plane and hope the parachute opens. So it’s the same kind of equation when it comes to this family gathering for this year. Do you really want to have that death or that even the illness? Because COVID is not just something that comes and then goes away after you’ve been treated. There is a significant minority of patients. I think it’s something like 20% of patients who get the illness, who have to be hospitalized and then who endure continuing symptoms for months on end after the illness has gone away. So it’s not necessarily just something that you get and you get over.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: So to introduce not only the possibility of death, but also the possibility of a chronic health problem from getting COVID-19. Once you put all that into a bundle and look at it, you can say, wow, like I really hadn’t thought of it that way. And I really don’t necessarily want to be responsible for another person’s death or illness or any kind of inconvenience just because I need to see their face to face versus over a Zoom chat. And that’s the important thing. We can still get together. We’re just asking people to consider doing it, you know, virtually rather than in person this year because of the astounding case rates we’re seeing. It’s just it’s an upward number. That’s it’s unbelievable. It’s far worse than spring. And some health experts warned people that the winter was going to be difficult and this could happen. And unfortunately, we’re seeing that. So I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to really take that long view and to say, hey, do I want anybody else’s health problems on my conscious?
Gabe Howard: John, my family agrees with you, I agree with you, and I think many families agree. So let’s talk about making lemonade out of lemons. We’ve now decided that we’re not going to get together. Now, you’ve been alluding in this episode that you can get together via Zoom, but of course, you can’t exchange presents over Zoom. Right? technology
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Sure you can.
Gabe Howard: The technology just is not there yet.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Sure you can. Of course you can. Why are you saying you can’t exchange? You can send the presents a week or two ahead of time. People have done this for years prior to this where they live overseas or they live in a situation where they can’t get away and they can’t physically be there. So you just have to make allowances. You have to think things through a little bit and spend a little extra time and effort putting together a care package, basically of small presents if you want, or stick to gift cards, which you can even send virtually now.
Gabe Howard: You just email those things right over
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Yes,
Gabe Howard: That’s an excellent point.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Look, it’s not the same Christmas as you’re used to. I get that, OK? This is not going to be a normal Christmas, even if you make the choice to get together. It’s a weird Christmas. It’s a weird holiday season. It’s going to be a weird, it’s going to be, unfortunately, a long and difficult winter until the vaccine gets into widespread use and people actually sign up to take it. You’re looking at summertime before you get the numbers necessary to really combat the virus.
Gabe Howard: I really like what you said about it’s not going to be your typical Christmas, it’s not going to be your typical New Year’s, it’s not going to be your typical holiday, but it can still be a good one. And it reminds me of when my sister was in the military. Now, she was in the military before Zoom was a thing. But the reason that I’m bringing this up is we obviously wanted to see my sister over the holiday. We wanted to spend Christmas with her. We love her very much. And it was the planning that allowed us to have memorable Christmases. Now, to send her stuff in Iraq, we had to mail it literally two months in advance. So, we were planning Christmas in October and November to make sure that it got to her and then she would get it. And then she didn’t have a guaranteed time to call. There was, you know, time differences and obviously she was busy being a soldier and all. So, we’d all have to sit around the phone from like noon to eight because that was her window. And actually, that window was like 8 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. It was a very difficult window, but we did it and my sister did the exact same thing from Iraq where she mailed us her presents. Actually, she sent them via Amazon. So, she was much more clever than we were. But with all of that planning, we all sat around a speakerphone and we all opened the presents that we got for my sister and that my sister got for us all together. And now all these years later, because of that effort, because of that planning and because we understood that this was the situation, we have a lot of memories about it. And of course, my sister says things like when I was in the military, we didn’t have video conferencing. It’s now a happy memory. If people get on board early and recognize that, do you think that will improve the outcome of their holidays this year, Dr. John?
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s important to have these conversations ahead of time, like right now to be talking about Christmas and as soon as possible deciding what you as an entire extended family are going to do. And if some people are uncomfortable with not participating in a face to face gathering, as we’re recommending they don’t, getting those presents in the mail as soon as possible or just thinking about other ways, sending a card or with a gift card in it or something of that nature might be sufficient this year. Again, this is a very unusual time. It’s a once in a lifetime situation. Just have to go with the flow, roll with it, because it’s not something you’re probably going to have to worry about in 2021 if we finally get the virus under control with all the vaccines coming down the roads, look at it as an unusual situation and try and be a little bit more flexible than you ordinarily might be. I understand families can get into these rigid patterns and they don’t ever want to change the traditions. And they think like the traditions are so important. And look, they are to a point, but traditions shouldn’t trump common sense. And that’s what we’re asking people to engage in a little bit more of when you’re seeing such a rise in cases that you need to use your common sense and say indoors, no social distancing, no masks. This is what the virus likes. We probably shouldn’t do it.
Gabe Howard: Dr. John, as always, thank you so much for being here. Do you have any last words for our listeners before we jet on out of here?
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Yeah, look, it’s Christmas time, I get it, you can still enjoy the season, you can still go for walks down the street, you can still enjoy shopping virtually, if not in person, because they might need to close the shops again or whatnot. It’s a difficult time and we’re all going through this. The coronavirus is the enemy and we are all lined up against fighting this enemy and we have to be united in that fight. We can’t have people saying, oh, I don’t believe a coronavirus isn’t an enemy. It’s not such a bad virus. No, it is a bad virus. It kills people. It kills a thousand Americans a day. It will be over the quarter million mark when we recorded this. We have to treat it seriously. And you do that by making these small personal sacrifices for one year and by taking personal responsibility for the decisions and the behaviors you engage in because you have the ability. We all have the ability, each and every one of us in helping to combat this enemy, to fight against the coronavirus and the spread of the coronavirus. And if we are united in doing this, we will eventually be successful. But if we ignore the science and we ignore the good scientific advice, we are just going to contribute to more American deaths, more of your neighbors getting sick, and in this case, potentially some of your family members coming down with the virus. And that’s something I don’t think any one of us wants. We don’t want to see a loved one in the ICU on a ventilator. That would be really the worst way of ending 2020 is to have that to happen. I would just ask our listeners to consider these things as they’re making their plans for this year.
Gabe Howard: And when they’re making their plans work together with their loved ones to make the second-best memories that they can, I am not an optimistic person. But I have to tell you that some of my best memories were when things did not go as planned and we all pulled together as a family and made it work anyway. I really do believe that is an opportunity that all of America has, really all of the world has. But all of America right now has the opportunity to really make this a very unique and memorable and still happy holiday season.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Absolutely, absolutely. I cannot emphasize what you just said enough, and we’re all going to have these memories of the pandemic of 2020, we’re all going to remember what we did and how we got through it. And it’s going to be stories that we tell not only our children and our children, tell their children it’s something that’s going to be passed down for generations and how you handled it, how you got through it, how you made it through the other side alive and kept your family safe. I wish everybody a very merry Christmas, a very happy holiday. I hope everybody stays safe and still finds a way to enjoy the holidays.
Gabe Howard: John, I wish the absolute same for you as well.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D.: Thank you.
Gabe Howard: To all of our listeners, please have a very happy holiday season. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole, which is available on Amazon.com. Or you can buy it directly for me. I’ll sign it and I’ll throw in Psych Central Podcast swag. Just head over to gabehoward.com. It makes a great holiday gift. Wherever you download his podcast, please subscribe. Also, please rank and review. Use your words and tell other people why they should tune in as well. And remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling any time anywhere simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We’ll see everyone next week.
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