The holidays bring us an opportunity for celebration, expressions of love, gratitude, faith and tradition; festive rituals and togetherness. They can also be a time for many that bring a resurgence of grief for loved ones lost, a yearning for times and experiences no longer present, a reminder of unmet needs and difficult memories, an overwhelm due to family gatherings that result in conflict and challenge, stress due to the perceived and often implicit expectations that the holidays bring around ‘showing up’, gift-giving, financial pressures, relationship breakdowns, needing to appear a certain way or be in a certain mood, for some a profound loneliness or isolation, and for others an anticipatory anxiety about impending post-holiday blues, separation from family, and challenges, fears or expectations for the year ahead. Some individuals also experience seasonal affective disorder through the Winter holidays or deal with depression, trauma, or anxiety that can be triggered causing an experience of added pressure regarding coping and managing their mood during a time when ease and joy can feel expected yet inaccessible to some.
With all this in mind, the following comprises 10 strategies for coping and finding ways to thrive throughout and after the holidays:
1. Create and maintain your lifelines through the holidays. If you struggle with SAD (seasonal affective disorder), other mental illness (depression, anxiety etc.), or if you are facing other challenges, conflict, or grief through the holidays, it is important to maintain your support system and some degree of structure. If you are in therapy and you or your therapist go out of town and you still need to meet with someone, ask if there is a colleague on standby who can see you over the holidays or if phone check ins are possible. Other life lines may include talking to school counselors (pre and post holiday break), pastors, spiritual advisors, community groups, friends, loved ones, your 12 step community, and other trusted individuals. It can also be important to maintain contact with close friends and loved ones and keep up supportive and simple parts of your routine (eg. Morning coffee, reading before bed, daily run) or participate in your favorite interests and activities.
2. Give yourself permission. You have permission to feel what you feel and to go through what you are going through. You can’t make everyone happy and not everyone can or will understand your personal process. Own and validate your feelings, be responsible with your actions, and take time outs when you need them.
3. Practice mini-self-inventories. This includes checking in with how you are feeling, what is going on around you, doing a body scan to track for where you holding tension in your body and checking in to be conscious of regulating your breathing. This mindful practice throughout your day will provide you with greater self-awareness and the ability to observe, label, and narrate what is going on for you. This in turn can help you pause, become less reactionary, better meet your needs and make adaptive choices. Naming your experience can also facilitate the ‘braking’ system in your brain, allowing for a slowing down and greater self-regulation. In other words, this provides you with an opportunity to enter a more relaxed, grounded state versus a reactive state. Practice observing your feelings and experiences without attaching to the content of them. Another way to put it? Notice the rabbit hole, but don’t go down it!
4. Get in front of it. Know your relationships, your patterns, your vulnerabilities, your triggers, and know the potential stressors that you may be facing. For example, if there is a particular family conflict or challenge that will be faced when the family comes together for the holiday, discuss with a therapist or loved one or someone you trust what your fears are, what your limits are, what boundaries you can set, and what some of your communication and self-care strategies can be. Maybe practice some reality testing around the situation and be cautious of thinking mine fields like catastrophizing or all or nothing thinking. (Here are a few resources that explain a little more about reality testing and thinking errors: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/reality-testing; https://www.allenmorecounseling.com/cognitive-distortions/; https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/)
5. Create space. If you are experiencing grief and loss, consider creating a ritual that celebrates and acknowledges the individual(s) you are grieving and that creates space for your experience, your truth, and allows for stories, reminiscing, commemorating. There are also ways to have private, silent rituals, space, and acknowledgement through prayer or meditation, or your own private ceremony of letter writing, movement or music. Grief is a sacred, unique process for everyone. If someone close to you is grieving and you don’t know what to say, say simply that, and hold space with them. Our honest, raw vulnerability can provide the greatest empathy and opportunity for supportive connection.
6. Healthy avoidance. Be aware of getting drawn into unhealthy conflict. Some conflict is inevitable and can be moved through, managed and repaired. But if conflict escalates and becomes unmanageable, you have permission to set limits or in some cases leave if that is the healthiest choice.
7. Create new traditions. The holidays can sometimes create challenges over differences, whether in life choices, religion, politics, ritual, or tradition. Utilize the holidays as an opportunity to empower yourself while also practicing kindness and tolerance. For some this may mean creating new traditions and rituals for themselves and their nuclear family that celebrate their beliefs and embody their process of differentiation. Take time to step outside of the holiday chaos and hustle, and hold witness, observe, let some of the experience really sink in…the sounds, the tastes, the sights, the textures, the smells. Step inside and savor these mindful and intentional moments. Give yourself the time…even if it’s 2 conscious minutes. Whatever overwhelm you may be facing, you won’t be able to resolve it all in this moment. Give yourself some time to be here and experience now.
8. Practice self-care. This may include some of the following: regular exercise, cooking or baking if that is something you enjoy, a family walk or outing, watching a movie, decorating, meditation or prayer, practicing gratitude, finding humor, getting enough sleep, spending time with pets or children, journaling, breathing exercises, changing your state (eg. If you are inside and warm, step outside and get cold…provided you’re in a cold climate; get in water…a shower, bath, hot tub or pool; if it’s silent, play music; if it’s too loud, find a break and some silence; if you’re still, move; if you haven’t stopped moving, practice a moment of stillness and breathe). Take mini guided meditation breaks (there are some great apps out there that provide guided meditations with different themes that are just a few minutes long – eg. Insight Timer); create opportunities for some alone time to down regulate if you notice your heart rate and stress creeping up; and while down time and alone time can be healthy, be aware if you a tendency to isolate and set limits to your alone time. Scream in a pillow if you have to or head to that boxing class. Find your healthy outlets. And allow yourself some treats too. Find some ways to have fun!
9. Check that your basic needs are met. Have you slept? Have you eaten? Are you hydrated? Have you showered? Have you connected with someone? Have you hugged someone? Don’t underestimate the power and the need for physical affection and touch. The little things that are within your control can make all the difference. Sometimes all you have to do is put one foot in front of another and even that can be hard. Be kind to yourself.
10. Manage the expectations. Scale back your plans if you need to. We may not be able to control others’ feelings or expectations, but we can identify what is theirs and what is ours and we can choose how we respond. You do not have to internalize something that is not about you, even though that may be hard not to do. Be aware of the stories you are telling yourself and ask yourself if you have evidence for them. In conflict try to focus on what is the present issue at hand to avoid hitting the mountain of the past. And while it is important to have a voice and to use your voice, make sure you create space for listening and for others’ perspectives too.
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” — Leonard Cohen