When you think of the holiday season, what images come to mind? Perhaps it’s snow gracing the boughs of evergreens, families gathered around a fireplace, tables graced with an overabundance of your favorite holiday foods, endless partying with friends and family. For some of us, these images bring about a sense of elation, maybe even a mild euphoria. For others, however, it may be a time when stress and anxiety run higher than usual.[i] This time of year can exacerbate preexisting financial strains, family conflicts and shame. It can also be a time where one may be acutely aware of those family members who are no longer sitting around the dining room table – the loved ones we have lost – and serve to reinforce the loneliness we keep hidden away inside our hearts.[ii]
Holidays are rarely a Series of Hallmark Moments
The holidays not infrequently elicit pressured feelings to meet exaggerated expectations. Many worry about keeping up with family traditions such as preparing exquisite meals or finding the perfect present. Holiday expenses may threaten to bust an already strained family budget, creating feelings of guilt and shame over disappointing loved ones by not spending enough. Pressures to attend numerous holiday parties may feel increasingly burdensome. So how does one survive this time of year, which at times may feel like running an endless gauntlet? Between workplace demands, daily family obligations, and finding time to enjoy the holidays, managing one’s life may feel almost impossible.
Holiday Sadness and feelings of Loss
For some, family togetherness is rife with conflict. Hope springs eternal that family members will put aside their differences and really strive to get along this time of year. In practice, however, preexisting fault lines may widen, even rupture, leading to despondence, despair, and even open fighting. And not uncommonly we are reminded of those days of yesteryear, when we were surrounded by loved ones that have since passed away.
Remember Natalie, the young woman who came in to see me following a miscarriage? She recently returned to therapy after sustaining additional losses. As soon as she entered my office, she burst into tears, and recounted, “At the beginning of last November, my father-in-law suddenly died from a massive heart attack. Daniel and I were extremely close to him and it was a huge loss for our entire family.” She went on, “I felt like someone kicked me in the stomach when I first learned the news. As a result, Thanksgiving and Christmas were so emotionally draining. While we all tried to pretend that we were happy to see one another, inside I was filled with so much sadness, and a kind of dread. I don’t really understand that part. Maybe it had to do with other people I was missing as well. Particularly my grandmother, who had been such an important part of my life when I was growing up.” Natalie teared up again and went on, “Grandma used to teach me how to bake cookies, roast a turkey, and prepare the stuffing. The aromas emanating from her kitchen were other-worldly. I really miss her this time of year, and expect that this holiday season will be no different.”
She went on to express anxiety about the upcoming holidays, “We are not going home for Christmas this year, it’s just not going to work out that way, and I worry about whether Daniel’s mother will be okay. I feel guilty about not being there for her, and I worry that my feelings of depression over the miscarriage are going to come flooding back”. I asked Natalie what made her believe that. She said, “I had this vision in my head of what Christmas would look like this year. I could picture myself with Daniel’s mother, crying over the loss of her husband but finding joy in my baby bump. I imagined telling Daniel the gender of our baby in some creative way. I had this overwhelming feeling that this Christmas would be healing for all of us and now I worry that it will just make everything worse. Sometimes I feel like everything is just spinning out of control in my life. What should I do?”
I actively empathized with what she was feeling, and over the course of the next few sessions helped her to further grieve the loss of the baby she had been carrying, her father-in-law, and her grandma. And as Natalie was able to openly share her sadness and anger over these losses, her anxiety and depression began to abate.
Untangle your Holiday Blues
Perhaps, like Natalie, you or someone you love is also struggling with sadness, even depression, this holiday season. While there is no specific textbook fix, the following steps may help alleviate some of the emotional pain.
- Step 1: Be sure to set reasonable expectations for yourself. Organize your time and make things manageable by eliminating unnecessary or excessive activities.[iii]
- Step 2: Take better care of yourself by trying not to overeat, getting enough rest, and monitoring your intake of alcoholic beverages.
- Step 3: You don’t have to fake joyful feelings. Be authentic inside. Find a way to remind yourself that just because it’s the holidays, it doesn’t mean that you must be “filled with joy and cheer”. Any emotions that you experience, including sadness and anger over loved ones who have passed on, or annoyance with family members who are critical or judgmental, are valid.
- Step 4: Look for enjoyable activities that are low-stress, like driving around at night to view holiday decorations or attending local choral events.
- Step 5: If you can’t be with your loved ones in person, find creative ways to be together. Try Facetime, Skype, or just a good old fashioned phone call.
- Step 6: Try to surround yourself with those you care about, and if certain family members cause you emotional distress, limit the time you spend with them to a few hours, or at most a full day. There is no rule that says you need to spend several days visiting with toxic family members.
- Step 7: If it suits your personality, perform random acts of kindness. Do something nice for someone else. Show more courtesy on the road to other harried motorists. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, donate to a toy box, or provide clothing to a homeless shelter. These types of activities may provide you a sense of meaning and purpose and mitigate some of those holiday blues.