When the holidays are not necessarily ‘happy’

holiday wellness

Sree Mitra

December 20, 2023

Author: Dr Steve Hickman

It’s easy to overlook the reality that, amidst all the egg nog, presents and parties of the holiday season, there is a significant portion of the population who find this time of year particularly difficult and even painful. While the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has debunked the myth that suicides increase during the holidays, nonetheless, it’s important to be mindful that this is not a happy time for many.

For those of us who DO enjoy the holidays and look forward to them, it behooves us to be sensitive to those who have more difficulty finding cheer. There are ways to accommodate those who have a hard time with the season that are easy, kind and potentially rewarding for all. And for those who struggle to find the cheer through this time of year, there are a few things to consider that may make the going a bit easier as well.

Let the Joyous Be Aware . . . and Be Kind

Being sensitive to people who struggle with the holiday season is important, as this time of year can be challenging for various reasons. Here are some suggestions on how to approach this:

Be Mindful of Trigger Topics:

It’s important to be aware of the assumptions we make about other people and see if you can avoid the ones we make at this time of year regarding holiday plans, traditions, gift-giving, family gatherings or other holiday festivities. This is not about avoiding the topics altogether, but speaking of them in ways that make room for everyone. For example, this can be as simple as asking “Do you have plans for the holidays?” rather than “What are your plans for the holidays?”. This simple shift allows for the possibility that people do not and signals that you are not attaching any judgment to any answer. Above all else, the holidays are not a time to pressure people into doing things simply because you assume that everyone should.

Offer Support and Empathy:

Making it clear to the people around you that you are available to them if they need to talk about anything or need support, can go a long way toward creating an accepting and safe environment for everyone. Making announcements of activities might be prefaced by “If you are inclined to participate …” to allow for all possibilities can be helpful. Also, when appropriate, you can state overtly:  “I know that the holidays are not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak, so if you are someone who finds them difficult, I totally understand and encourage you to take good care of yourself”.

Be Inclusive:

As we’ve explored above, words matter, not only in which words you choose but how you say them. Making sure to use inclusive language and invitations that acknowledge a variety of different backgrounds and beliefs can help people feel seen and considered, without singling them out in any way. In terms of your tone, it’s important to realize that every person’s preferences are equally valid, so trying to avoid implying that one person’s plans (to stay home over going out, for example) are less desirable or valuable, can be key to being inclusive and considerate. This also includes respecting boundaries and privacy of people who would prefer to spend time alone or in ways that they would rather not share.

Holiday Navigation With Self-Compassion

If your experience of the holidays has tended to be less than enjoyable, then quite often seeing all the fun and festivities happening all around you can compound the problem (and you probably are already acutely aware of this). First and foremost, if you’re struggling, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional or a trusted person in your life for support. But that said, here are some general tips:

Acknowledge Your Feelings:

It’s okay to feel a range of emotions during the holidays, including sadness, loneliness, or stress. Acknowledge these feelings and give yourself permission to experience them, because they’re already here and psychologists know that “what you resist, persists” when it comes to emotions.

Set Realistic Expectations:

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to create the “perfect” holiday. Set realistic expectations for what you can handle, and don’t be afraid to scale back on festivities if needed. Choosing to opt out of something because you don’t feel up to it is a courageous act of self-compassion and self-care. You should feel proud of yourself for listening to your inner wisdom and acting on it.

Reach Out for Support:

Connect with friends, family, or support groups. Share your feelings and let others know if you need support. You don’t have to go through difficult times alone, even though you may have done so in the past.

Create New Traditions:

If the traditional holiday activities are too overwhelming, consider creating new traditions that align better with your current situation and feelings. Some people like to mix it up when it comes to holiday meals, using the time to make a sumptuous Chinese meal or to make Christmas Eve a time to go to the movies or go bowling. Anything can be a tradition if it suits you.

Self-Care is Self-Support:

Taking care of yourself physically and emotionally, especially during the holidays, is paramount. Practice self-care activities that tend to bring you comfort and relaxation, whether it’s reading, exercising, walking the dog, or binge-watching a show. Gift-giving is a part of many holiday traditions, and often the gift of self-care can be a highlight of the season.

Navigating the holiday season when you are not feeling great can be a delicate balance between honoring personal wellbeing and participating in the festive spirit. It’s okay to acknowledge and accept your emotions and recognize that not every day needs to be packed with celebrations. Ultimately, you get to decide what is right for you, allowing for moments of joy while taking care of your emotional wellbeing.

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