It’s the most wonderful time of year. Well, maybe not for everyone.
While displays of red and green fill storefronts, communities and front yards, for many people, the reality of the holiday leaves them feeling blue. Between stressful end-of-year deadlines, family dysfunction, poor eating habits and increasingly cold and dark winter days, it’s easy for the holiday season to feel not-so-merry and bright.
Jane Holliday, BA, LSW, says it’s a common occurrence: “Many people struggle with feelings of sadness during the time of year we traditionally think of as being the most festive. In fact, there are many sound reasons for feeling down, and they can range from demands on our time and budget to decreased sunlight.”
The holidays can be even more difficult if you’re dealing with family conflict, loss of a loved one, a break-up or divorce, loneliness or depression. Grief can overwhelm you with memories, or intensify the stress that usually accompanies the holiday season. You may be left with questions like:
- Is what I’m feeling normal?
- How do I begin to fill the emptiness I’m feeling?
- Should I ignore the holidays this year? Travel somewhere different?
It’s normal to ask yourself questions like these. But not all questions have ready answers. Or there may be different answers, depending on the many factors that make each relationship and each loss unique. More often than not, there are no right or wrong answers to how you should approach your first, second or even fifth holiday season.
But Jane has some general guidelines you can use as ideas to expand upon. You can shape them to fit your distinct circumstances and serve your own needs.
Accept the sadness.
“People wish they could be happy all the time, but that’s an unrealistic expectation,” says Jane. “Life is much more complex than that. If we can welcome the full range of emotional experience as part of a normal and healthy life – well, that takes some of the misery out of normal unhappiness and grief.” So, allow yourself to truly experience whatever mood or feelings are tugging at you. If you feel angry, allow yourself to express that in a healthy way. If you need to be alone, find a quiet space just for you. If you’re craving the company and warmth of others, seek it out.
Reach out, and do for others.
Just as Jane suggests, reach out if you need to. “Sharing your feelings with family and close friends can help you overcome feelings of stress, anxiety and depression,” says Jane. “Community and social events can also offer support and companionship during difficult times.” Volunteering your time to help others is another uplifting way to change your perspective, lift your spirits and positively impact someone else’s life. It can also help you find a sense of purpose and empowerment.
Create your own traditions.
Contrary to popular opinion, there are no “rules” for how you should spend your holidays. If old traditions bring up unhappy memories, start new ones. If you no longer see your family over the holidays, you can still share the holidays with close friends. Invite them to, and make them feel welcome in, your home instead. Maybe cooking a holiday dinner feels like a drag. Instead, you can do brunch or make it a pot-luck. Whatever you choose to do differently, make sure it brings you happiness.
Challenge your negative thinking.
Sadness affects your perspective, including the way you see yourself, the situations you encounter and your expectations for the future. “Challenging your negative thinking is more than just ‘thinking positive,’” says Jane. “It’s replacing your negative thoughts with well-balanced thoughts. I ask people, ‘Would you say what you’re thinking about yourself to someone else?’ Many times, they say no, and I challenge them to not be so hard on themselves.” In short: Allow yourself to be less than perfect, and think about statements that offer a more realistic description of who you are.
Discover small joys.
As the holidays unfold, tune into small joyful moments. For example, when you hear children laughing, focus on how good that sounds. When you eat a piece of your favorite pie, really taste it and focus on nothing else. And look for opportunities to laugh. “When you’re laughing, your brain produces feel-good chemicals called endorphins that can boost your mood,” explains Jane. So, give yourself permission to find things that bring you joy and make you laugh.