Traditional Thanksgiving customs and habits must change for our safety this year. That's the word from medical professionals like Dr. Chris Kelly, a UNC REX cardiologist.
"This is likely to be one of the most stressful holiday seasons that any of us has ever experienced," Kelly said. "The current CDC recommendations are that Americans should try to avoid travel and avoid gathering in large groups, which is what we usually do during Thanksgiving. It seems like a lot of people are not taking that advice, because I know the airports are very, very busy."
"There's the usual stress of Thanksgiving, of dealing with family members that maybe you don't see too often, of traveling and getting your life organized to see them," said Kelly. "And then there's the background stress about the COVID pandemic, about worrying whether you're gonna get sick, whether you're gonna get someone else sick. And avoiding large gatherings will help reduce your stress, because you don't have to worry about the potential guilt of participating in or hosting a super-spreader event."
The traditional meal with turkey, ham and all the trimmings is what makes Thanksgiving special for many of us. But Dr. Kelly says we all need to make adjustments to accommodate these unusual times.
But what sort of adjustments?
"Focus on the things that connect you with your family members and friends. Thanksgiving tables are known for being places where family members may have had a little too much to drink, and start arguing with each other about the world. Certainly we're in the middle of a very heated political season right now," Kelly said. "Do not mention the words 'Donald Trump' at your Thanksgiving table. Instead, focus on what you have to be thankful for. Hopefully good health and a family, and the ability to see each other locally and hopefully the fact that none of you has COVID."
There are more heath threats that could arise during this week, including the possibility of heart attacks.
"That's because if you have risk factors for heart disease, and over the years you've been building up plaque in your arteries, an acute stressful event can cause one of those plaques in your heart to rupture and cause a heart attack. Try not to eat or drink to excess during Thanksgiving. Don't argue with people, don't put yourself into stressful situations and just try as much as possible to stick with your routines," said Dr. Kelly. "Go to a room by yourself, think about what's stressing you out, whether it's something you can control our not. Even if it's something you can't control, you can control your reaction to it. So if someone is behaving obnoxiously or you're just feeling overwhelmed by preparing dinner, for example, just accept that there are certain things you can't change and do your best."
But some people may not be able to handle Thanksgiving this year if tempers and voices rise around the dinner table.
"If you feel like your stress level is truly through the roof and is overwhelming, and you feel like you could be having a panic attack, go to the emergency room. Maybe you are having a panic attack but you could be having a heart attack, too. If you feel your mood swinging downward, and you're feeling depressed, upset, anxious, hopeless, so much so that you're thinking of harming yourself, you should also get to an emergency room," Kelly said.
Kelly said there are mental health hotlines you can call.
"All of us are going to experience stress this holiday season. That is for certain. All that we can control, though, is how we react to that and how much we let the stress affect us. So try to lower the temperature with your family whenever possible. Try to focus on things that you all share in common and make you happy. Avoid confrontation. Eat and drink in moderation, and do your best to have a low stress holiday season because that'll be great for your mind and great for your heart, too."