(CNN)In pre-pandemic times, Sarah Sheehan always headed to North Carolina for a hectic holiday schedule that included hopping between the homes of several different relatives, a Christmas Eve midnight church service and caroling around the rural county where her extended family lives.
Not everyone is sad to be missing the holidays with family this year
"On Christmas morning, my grandparents, mom and I get together at my mom's sister's house with my uncle and cousins," said Sheehan, 27, a content strategist and consultant in Virginia. "We always have biscuits and sausage gravy, quiche and cinnamon rolls with hot coffee or tea and eat breakfast together while opening presents."
This year, however — with Covid-19 both raging and a handy excuse to bow out of the festivities, Sheehan said — she plans instead to be "curled up with my dog (at home), watching zombie shows while drinking wine and smoking a blunt."
Sheehan looks forward to taking a break from her family's busy holiday celebrations as well as not having to appear as "religious, conservative, or docile as I have to pretend to be when I'm home," she said. "As much as I care for my family, we are incredibly different people. I love being with them in short doses, but a week or more at a time during Christmas is too much."
If you're looking forward to pulling the pandemic card for a hall pass on the holidays with family this year, too, you're not alone.
"Holidays can be a time of joy, but they can also be a time for obligation, so they don't always feel so good," said psychologist Wendy Rice of Rice Psychology Group, a general psychology practice in Tampa, Florida. "It's not easy to get out of things because this is what your family does. It can be hard to break with tradition."
But with officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health experts warning Americans to consider the risks of traveling for the holidays and advising against gathering in large groups, breaking with tradition might be easier than ever this festive season.
And for many people, breaking with tradition can serve to avoid the stress that often accompanies family gatherings.
Avoiding tension can get a bad rap as a coping tactic, said Shevaun Neupert, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who specializes in how people prepare and respond to stress. "But people are now realizing the value in avoidance," she said. "There's definitely a time and place where avoiding is the best strategy."
Families "can be a source of tremendous support," Neupert said, but they can also be toxic. "And sometimes both of those narratives can be used to describe the same family."
It's worth questioning if you should tackle problems within families head-on, she said. "Avoidance might be this really adaptive thing," Neupert said. "We're trying to stay physically distant but socially connected in ways that are helpful for us right now."
Carrie Gray — a new mother to a 6-month-old in New York City — is cautious about exposing her baby during the pandemic. Covid-19 is a good reason to avoid the usual holiday get-togethers that she and her husband attend with up to 40 people in New Jersey and Connecticut.
"I don't want all the people crowding my baby, touching her, squeezing her cheeks or making goopy faces at her," Gray, 41, explained via email. "As a new mom, socializing takes extra energy that I just don't have right now — all of my energy is reserved for my baby (and husband, too)."
A new mother may feel even more vulnerable during the pandemic, Neupert said, and avoidance can be a useful tool in coping. "For people who are able to navigate the stress in their lives, they've built a toolbox of coping tools they bring out, and with the pandemic it's a brand-new type of stress we haven't dealt with before," she said.
If the pandemic is giving people an out to not show up for what might be a very uncomfortable family gathering, "that's avoidance that's really adaptive."
For some people, the pandemic has highlighted how differently family members interpret the dangers of Covid-19 — adding to the awkwardness of discussions around gathering in large groups for the holidays.