The holiday season is here. And like every year around this time, we are getting bombarded with advertising, social media messages and reminders about the joyful spirit this season brings and the happiness we are expected to feel or experience.
But what happens if you are not feeling that joy, not feeling the excitement, if the holidays bring you sorrow. If this is your case, you are not alone, particularly this year, a year when the pandemic has impacted everyone one way or another. Millions across the world may have lost a loved who may not be at the dinner table this season. Or people may be struggling because of not being able to connect like they normally would with family members or friends during the holidays. And many other environmental stressors have taken a toll on us: politics, racial injustice, health disparities, financial hardships, etc. And beyond the pandemic, and these environmental factors, families who have cut ties with one another, people who are experiencing depression, trauma, anxiety, may have a harder time during holiday season.
If you are struggling, this post is for you. Here are some ideas on how to survive this season:
- Find an anchor to come back to the present moment. When we are in pain, or worried about the future, we are not longer experiencing the present moment. Being in the present moment and experiencing non-judgmental present moment awareness, offers us a place of neutrality, calm, balance, a place where we can be with what’s around – enjoying the birds chirping, noticing sensations, listening to sounds. There are a few ways to come back to the present moment such as finding an anchor when we find ourselves lost in rumination (thinking repeatedly on something that happened) or lost in worry. An anchor is what pulls us back to the here and now. Deep breathing (inhaling slowly through you nose and exhaling slowly through our nose or mouth) can serve as that anchor. When you deep breathe, the task is to focus with all your concentration on your breathing, following each breath from beginning to end. Another anchor can be our five senses – tuning in to the sounds of where we are, the things we see, smells, sensations we are experiencing, and tasting something.
- Validate your feelings. It may feel off not to be cheerful, joyful or thankful as other people may feel. It may even feel like there is something wrong with you. First, know that all emotions are important, valid and necessary. And emotions do not discriminate on what occasion to show up. If you are feeling emotions other than joy, excitement, peace, accept what you are feeling as valid and name what you are feeling. You may say: I am feeling sad, I am feeling angry. The more we acknowledge how we feel or name how we feel, the more these emotions can lessen. Even if other people may not understand how you feel, it is important that you do and that you give yourself enough love, kindness and compassion as you would give others.
- Identify why you are feeling that way. Some people may be able to pinpoint right away why they are feeling a certain way. But this is not the case for everyone. If you know why you are feeling a certain emotion, give it a voice. For example, you may say: I am feeling sad because my loved one is not here this holiday season. When we externalize or speak what we are going through the less potential for that distress to become depression or anxiety. Sometimes this work is too hard to do on our own and we may need a mental health professional to help us externalize or process how we are feeling.
- Touch and go. Staying with any emotion that may feel painful for too long can lead to long term distress. When we accept, and name our intense emotions, we do so while limiting how long we stay with them. We can lean into them, notice them, be with them, name them and let then run its course. Emotions are temporary, they come and go but sometimes we attach to them unconsciously or consciously and it makes their natural course prolong. I like to offer an invitation to anyone struggling to talk to their emotions and let them know how long they will be with them. For example, we can tell sadness: Sadness, I will be with you for the next 30 minutes but after 30 minutes I will have to let you go. We call this touch and go – we touch or acknowledge an experience and we let it go. And its up to you to make sure you keep the agenda moving, after those 30 minutes with sadness, make an active effort to do something that will take you away from that emotion.
- Take some space for yourself without isolating. Some people may not feel inclined to be with others if they are going through a hard time. While connection is an important wellbeing factor, being in solitude could be a healing and powerful experience. But there is an important difference, being disconnected from others or isolated for too long (over two weeks) can lead to depression and feelings of loneliness or sometimes isolation can already be a symptom of depression. When you decide to give yourself some space for yourself, limit how long you may want to do that for, a day or a few may be appropriate but not if you are already in a depressive state. We all need connecting with others for our health. Connecting with others can activate feel good chemicals in our brain such as oxytocin (the love hormone). If you decide to be in solitude, do something re-energizing and healing during that time such as meditating, prayer, reading, practicing a hobby, resting, etc.
- Set boundaries. It’s okay to make the holiday season what you need it to be for yourself. If you are not up for holiday parties (even virtual ones), you can politely decline. When you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do more, or you are overextended, listen to your body and mind and practice saying no. Saying no can be as simple as saying: no, thank you, I wish I could but I can’t, I am not able to.
- Orient yourself to pleasure or joy. We are all worthy of experiencing joy even when we are hurting. In fact, we need joy to feel well. Earlier, I mentioned that emotions are temporary and they are meant to pass through. When emotions do not run its course and they stay longer than they need to, we can work towards re-directing ourselves to pleasurable experiences that evoke pleasant emotions. Ask yourself, what brings me joy? what can make me laugh? what do I find pleasurable? This may be hard if you are feeling depressed. If you have a hard time identifying something enjoyable to do, watch a funny movie or comedy or something that will make you laugh. I call this fake it until you believe it. One way to think about experiencing joy in times of sorrow is that we can hold two or several emotions at the same time; we can acknowledge being sad about something and feeling happy or thankful about something else. Another exercise to evoke positive feelings is to identify memories that bring some of these pleasant emotions.
- Find what is going well in your life. Many things have felt off, bad, sad this year. But I can also guess there are some things still going okay as small as they may feel. Similarly, to practicing gratitude, when we practice what is going well in our lives, we identify everything that can make that list, nothing is too small. Each day, find a designated time to identify and reflect on 3 to 5 things of things that went well that day, or things you feel proud of or things you are grateful for. For instance, I woke up, I have food on my table, I managed my emotions. And as you write your list, notice how it makes you feel to think about the things that are going well. The more you do this, the more organic this becomes and you will be able to do it all throughout your day. Our ability to recognize the good in our lives has a direct connection to how we feel. If you have a hard time with this task, give yourself some self-love and try again later or the next day. But if you are not unable to identify anything that may be going well in your life, consider working with a mental health professional who can support you, help process your pain and introduce you to coping skills.
Pain grows in silence. Do not suffer alone. If you are struggling, seek the support of a mental health professional.
This season can be particularly tough for people experiencing depression and grief and loss, If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255 or text the word HOME to 741741. Both resources are available 24/7. You and your life are important.
Wishing you much wellness, and moments of joy and peace this holiday season!