It’s the most wonderful time of the year…right?
NOT! …for so many Americans.
The holiday season is aggressively marketed as a Hallmark fantasy. A beautiful Christmas tree. Twinkling lights and mistletoe. Picture-perfect parties. Mouthwatering Christmas food porn. Joyous family gatherings. Uplifting made-for-TV movies about a wondrous Christmas “miracle”, whether it’s healing an estranged relationship or recovering from a chronic illness.
Like digitally altered models, these images of the “perfect” Yuletide are often unrealistic and unattainable. And, they contradict the reality of how many people actually experience the holiday season.
According to Psychology Today, a North American survey found that up to 45 percent of Americans dread the holiday season.1In another survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association, 38 percent of survey participants reported increased stress levels during the holiday season. The main stressors? Lack of time, lack of money, commercialism, the expectations and pressure around gift-giving and family gatherings.2
With expectations running high, December can be a particularly painful month if you have lost a parent, child, or loved one; if you are newly separated or divorced; if you are estranged from your family (or children); if you are grappling with family conflict, grief, loneliness, or mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or Alzheimer’s; if you are dealing with end-of-year work deadlines or a job loss; or, if you are struggling with a health challenge, whether chronic or newly diagnosed.
You are NOT alone!
Here are 7 ways to mindfully surf the holiday blues:
1. Manage your expectations.
Many people, including myself, have had selective amnesia when it comes to family and the holidays. Perhaps, you’re an incorrigible Christmas romantic who envisions the holidays as a time of peace, harmony, reconciliation and cozy family dinners. Unfortunately, when everyone is under the same roof, toxic patterns and/or relationships often reemerge: adult siblings vying for parental approval or affection, relatives who drink too much, or family members who engage in abusive communication patterns—nit-picking criticism, put-downs, taunting, verbal abuse or sarcasm (yes, sarcasm, because irony is used to convey contempt for another person).
Family dynamics are complicated. For example, when the experience of a family member, who endured sexual, physical or emotional abuse at the hands of a parent, sibling or relative, is not acknowledged by the family, this creates a toxic environment for the victim. Perhaps, a parent and adult child are estranged because of the adult child’s lifestyle choices or sexual orientation. Or, perhaps, one or more family members is an alcoholic or addict. Throw happy holiday expectations into the mix…and you can expect strife and friction.
If, say, your sibling was a target of violence or ridicule as a child, acknowledge and respect their piece of family history. Putting pressure on family to all get along, while sweeping uncomfortable family history under the rug, is a recipe for instant tension and conflict. So, please, take off the rose-colored glasses! Don’t “force” peace, love and joy.
Instead, be grateful for opportunities the holiday may offer: much-needed downtime; a chance to sleep in, cook or take long walks; or, spending quality time with friends you might not otherwise see. Keep it real.
2. Have a plan.
Nothing can feel more stressful than drifting into the holiday season without a plan. I’ve been there, done that! In a complete turnabout, this year, I made my Thanksgiving plans at end-August! For example, if you are obligated to spend time with family members who push your buttons, plan how much time you want to spend with them, how you will respond to invasive queries or uncomfortable conversations (e.g., When are you having kids? What do you mean… you don’t want to get married? Why aren’t you dating? Etc.)and a well-timed exit strategy (if necessary). If you are committed to healthy eating—and the rest of your family is not—plan how you will stay on track. Will you offer to bring a healthy, home-cooked dish (that you can eat) to a family dinner? Will you offer to choose a restaurant (with healthy options) if the family dines out? Will you pack emergency snacks? There is no need to “preach” healthy eating to the rest of your family, but, make a plan to stay in your own lane. If you choose to spend the holiday alone, plan how you want to spend the day, whether it’s going out for a meal, taking a day trip, or going to the movies.
3. Just say “No”.
Overcommitting your time, energy and financial resources is a surefire way to make the holiday season feel like an endless slog. December tends to be stressful, anyway, with end-of-the-year work deadlines, financial constraints (money worries, by the way, were a top holiday season stressor in a 2015 poll conducted by the Principal Financial Group), social obligations, gift shopping and travel. It’s also smack in the middle of cold and flu season. Taking on too much or feeling pressured to create a “perfect” holiday experience leads to stress, exhaustion, anxiety and depression. So, be realistic about how you choose to spend your time. If you prefer to celebrate the holidays closer to home rather than travel long distance, do so. If you feel rundown and need recovery time, decline social invitations without apology. If you cannot afford the “perfect” gift for a loved one, revisit this gift idea at a later date.
4. Stop comparing yourself to others.
We all do this. Comparing yourself to the “perfect” holiday that you imagine everyone else is experiencing only fuels feelings of inadequacy, failure and depression.
One of the most important lessons that I have learned in life and through my work is that how people appear on the outside (e.g., successful, powerful, in control, happy, beautiful, “having it all”, “perfect”) often does not match how they feel on the inside (e.g., insecure, anxious, feeling “less than”). In other words, you cannot judge a book by its cover.
This is a good time to do a news media detox, which relentlessly commercializes the holiday season. It is also a good time to take a break from Facebook and Instagram. Comparing your holiday to what other people post—carefully curated images that range from “perfect” holiday meals to family gatherings—can contribute to feelings of sadness and isolation.
You are enough! Be grateful for what you have and surround yourself with people who love and accept you—as you are.
5. Commit to self-care.
This often goes by the wayside during the holidays because we are stressed and spread too thin. Too often, the holidays serve as an excuse to overindulge in sugar, white flour and alcohol, the very things we crave under duress!
Yes, I know, it’s hard to resist cookies, cupcakes and other treats at the office this time of year. You will be better able to resist temptation if you are mindful of balancing your blood sugar. This means eating 3 meals a day with quality protein and vegetables and plenty of water. Remember: this is cold and flu season. Sugar and flour suppress your immune system and create inflammation in the body. Sugar can also take down your mood because it suppresses activity of BDNF, a growth hormone in the brain that plays a significant role in memory function; in animal studies, low BDNF can trigger depression. A study conducted by psychiatric researcher Malcolm Peet found a strong link between high sugar consumption and risk of depression and schizophrenia.3
While it’s also tempting to slack off on exercise, keep moving. Many studies have shown that exercise—both aerobic and resistance training—is positively associated with mood. The results of a study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, confirmed previous findings that exercise is comparable to antidepressant medication in the treatment of patients with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).4 And don’t let the idea that exercise has to be hard or long in order to be effective deter you: taking a long (or short) leisurely walk counts as “exercise”.
6. Avoid self-medicating. Remain true to yourself.
If there has been a loss of any kind—a job, a loved one, a marriage, mobility / health—the urge to “escape” and self-medicate with food, sugar, alcohol, drugs, sex or electronic distraction, can be overwhelming. The cultural pressure to be social, festive, “happy” and “on” during the holidays only exacerbates this urge, especially if we buy into the idea that everyone else is having a “perfect” holiday.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry or lonely…say it, write it, own it. If you need time and space to heal from a loss, decline invitations without apology. If you don’t feel like visiting relatives or friends, who you know will leave you feeling drained (and craving a drink!), don’t do it.
Do you find yourself desperate to numb your pain? This is the time to seek support, whether through a friend(s), therapist or support group (online or in-person). Being proactive in seeking and accepting support is a sign of strength—not weakness.
7. Reframe. Reframe. Reframe.
Your thoughts become your reality. Thoughts influence how you feel and how you behave. When you are able to acknowledge your thoughts and identify any negative thought patterns, you can then transform them.
For example, if you decide to celebrate Christmas at home this year instead of traveling to a distant family gathering, you may think: “I am such a bad daughter (or son). Everyone is going to think I’m a jerk for not making the effort to travel.” Reframe. “I need this time with my family (or friends). And I am looking forward to a relaxing, intimate and meaningful holiday celebration at home.”
Be very, very kind to yourself this month.