Holiday season is upon us. While the holidays are typically associated with joy and celebrations, they are often met with sadness, loneliness and guilt. You may find yourself missing a loved one who cannot make it to a holiday gathering, or grieving the loss of a loved one who is no longer with you. Holiday stigma exists and is a subject to address this season.
Sadness can be challenging to cope with when all around you people are singing about how this is “the most wonderful time of the year.” How do you handle so many movies and ads broadcasting family and togetherness if you’ve lost a loved one or you feel all alone? What do you do with so many messages about everything being “merry and bright” when, in most places, it is quite literally cold and dark? (Gillison, 2021.)
The truth is that, for many, this can actually be the most difficult time of the year. In 2014, NAMI found that 64% of people with mental illness say the holidays make their conditions worse. A 2021 survey showed that 3 in 5 Americans feel their mental health is negatively impacted by the holidays. And as we face a second holiday season during the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that more people than ever will be grieving someone or something during this time (Gillison, 2021.)
So if you find yourself feeling anxious for the holidays, you are certainly not alone. Here are a few steps you can take to prioritize your mental health during this hectic season:
1. Accept Your Feelings
The holidays can bring up a range of emotions for people. Sometimes you can even experience seemingly contradictory emotions all at once. Try your best to acknowledge and accept your emotions rather than place judgment on them. It’s OK to feel happy; it’s OK to feel sad; it’s even OK to feel both happy and sad. Give yourself compassion and allow yourself to sit with whatever you’re feeling.
2. Maintain Healthy Habits
For many people, the holidays lead to a massive disruption in your day-to-day routine. But maintaining healthy habits like going to therapy, getting enough sleep and exercising are critical to keeping your mental health on track. Healthy habits may also include drinking enough water, writing your schedule down in a planner, or taking some much needed self-care time.
3. Set Boundaries
People like to be generous during the holidays, but that generosity doesn’t have to come at the expense of having healthy boundaries. If hosting an event or buying an expensive gift is too stressful, it’s OK to say no. It’s also OK to limit the time you spend with family that you may have a complicated dynamic with.
4. Make Time to Connect
Connection and meaning are critical to our mental health. Make time for your important relationships and connect with yourself through self-care. You can even connect with loved ones who are no longer with you through a family tradition or a personal remembrance ritual. For me, every Christmas I try to find a quiet space where I can talk to my dad in spirit and reminisce about our conversations, his witty remarks and his love for music and photography.
I will always miss my dad during Christmas. But at the same time, I will always be thankful for the many Christmases I did get to spend with him, and I’m so happy that he is no longer in pain. This year, I’m reminding myself that it’s OK to still be grieving; at the same time, I don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying the holidays without him.
Repurposing JOY (Paul’s sticky buns)
Do you recall a favorite meal or activity associated with the holidays? For my family, it was cinnamon rolls every Christmas morning. I can still smell the sweet cinnamon emerging from the kitchen and the proud look on my dad’s face knowing we were excited for more than just presents. That was 10 years ago.
In 2013 my dad’s life was ended short by terminal cancer, stage four pancreatic cancer to be exact. He was diagnosed in November and after a brief battle, he passed away in March. Grief is a strange thing to endure. I felt every emotion possible; anger, sadness, guilt, resentment, more anger and overall just disbelief that life could be so unfair. Holiday season quickly approached and filled my family with dread. We avoided holiday traditions for many years and found it painful to do small things like put up our Christmas tree. I thank my mother for being my family’s rock and making holidays still feel special, even though I know she was hurting even more than us.
So after years of anger, sadness, and avoidance… my mom made the cinnamon rolls. She followed my dad’s recipe and we laughed and cried while we enjoyed them at our kitchen table, where we had sat 15 years before. The moral of this story is to recreate memories you have with your loved ones. It is difficult to find the courage to be in touch with your deepest, most vulnerable emotions, but it is worth it to rediscover joy. This holiday season — whether you find it to be the most wonderful or most difficult time of the year — I encourage you to recreate a memory or a meal a loved one once enjoyed.
I hope you’ll join me in taking care of your mental health by accepting whatever emotions come up, maintaining healthy habits, setting boundaries on stressors and making time for meaningful connection (Gillison,2021.)