As a psychologist, I always brace for the emotional fallout from the holiday season from my patients. But this year could be particularly hard as we enter our second pandemic winter already depleted.
During what we are told should be the happiest time of the year, many struggle with stress and anxiety related to family gatherings, exhaustive preparations, travel and gift buying. Waves of grief tend to come with full force, and holiday blues can put a damper on any enjoyment and rob us of energy and motivation to engage with the world. My patients also describe frequent headaches, sleep problems, and eating and drinking more than they would like to.
Holidays also can exacerbate loneliness. People without a support system of good family or friends might feel especially abandoned during the time when togetherness is a norm. And holidays often make people’s existing psychological challenges worse.
“I hate holidays,” said Stephanie Suesan Smith, a 56-year-old writer in Dallas. “As days get shorter and all the family of origin issues flair up around this time, my depression gets predictably worse.”
She is not alone. A National Alliance of Mentally Ill (NAMI) survey in 2014 found that 64 percent of people with mental illness reported that holidays worsened their conditions.
Here are ways that you can stay resilient this holiday season.
• Temper expectations. No matter how many times we have experienced children’s meltdowns, relatives’ faux pas, burned food or canceled flights, we seem to have unwaveringly high expectations for the holidays.
“There is even more pressure now to have the best holidays ever to make up for the last year,” said Ilyse DiMarco, a clinical psychologist in Summit, N.J. and the author of “Mom Brain.” “Setting the bar lower would be much better for our mental health.”
Having lower expectations might be just the reason Danes consistently are among the top in happiness surveys, according to a 2006 article. Maybe we could learn from them and expect that things will not go as planned.
“Think about previous holidays, vacations - how it wasn’t all great, or how it probably took you some time to even settle into a nonworking mode,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside and the author of “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want” “The key is to appreciate what you have, not what you want.”
Finally, moderate your expectations about others’ reactions to your gifts as you are only responsible for thoughtfully choosing gifts - what happens next is out of your control and more a reflection on the gift receiver.
• Let go of “shoulds.” It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the things we should do during the holidays. We should send emails or cards with season’s wishes. We should deep clean the house, hunt down all the gifts from our wish lists, cook enough different foods to cater to everyone’s taste and restrictions, package enough cookies to distribute at work, and so on. The to-do list invariably becomes your enemy.
“It’s helpful to realize that we’ll never be able to get everything done. It’s not a matter of having a bad list - all lists exist in the limitless realm of ideas,” said Oliver Burkeman, the author of “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals” “Once you strip away the illusion and accept that humans are limited, you are forced to choose what really matters.”
My patients often express a belief that “if only” they could create a perfect holiday (or gift, vacation, meal, etc.), in which everyone would have a great time, they would feel better and the pain of the pandemic would be overcome. But this is a common thinking trap we all fall prey to: basing our well-being on impossible standards and on the things we cannot control.
Embrace imperfection and simplicity instead, letting everyone know in advance what adjustments you are making to reduce holiday stress. “It is liberating to accept there’s no perfection, and this will also resonate with others,” Burkeman said.
Finally, Lyubomirsky cautions not to get caught up in unhealthy social comparisons, amplified by social media. Focus on the aspects of the holidays that are most meaningful for you and read the curated Facebook posts about glorious holidays with a grain of salt.
• Make space for all emotions. One of the most pernicious effects of picture-perfect holidays portrayed in movies, ads and media is an expectation for smiling, joy and happiness, all the time. Although these feelings are common during this season, so are grief, sadness and other negative emotions.
“After my grandpa died, our already small family had to adjust to an empty seat at the holiday table,” said Elana Cohen, a 31-year-old publicist from Chicago. “And now is the second year that we can’t bring my grandma from her nursing home - it’s heartbreaking. But we are also grateful that we can visit her and really enjoy each other’s company.”
Research shows that, in general, mixed emotions are much more frequent than we realize. And rather than being harmful, they often strengthen a person’s resilience during stressful periods and are related to having a strong sense of purpose or meaning in life.
Moreover, pushing away or suppressing negative emotions ends up making them stronger and more frequent. So allow pain and grief to coexist with the other emotions. Noticing and naming various feelings, talking or writing about them, or expressing them through art can be particularly beneficial.
DeMarco also suggests bringing self-compassion to our experience, realizing that it is human to struggle during the holidays. “You can deliberately incorporate traditions that remind you of your deceased loved one, for example, allowing grief and joy as you talk about them,” she said.
• Be open to new traditions. If you find yourself a hostage to the holiday traditions that are harder and harder to uphold, it might be time to rethink them.
Consider that complicated recipe that requires multiday preparation, resulting in a beautiful dish that nonetheless your family doesn’t care for. Or the habit of always gathering at your Aunt Sally’s home, despite predictably nightmarish traffic to her place.
How well are these traditions aligning with your values, bringing you closer to what you want your life to be about?
Burkeman suggested giving yourself permission to slow down and reimagine holidays by, for example, ordering food or staying home. You might disappoint some relatives or friends, but “we are always going to let someone down,” he said. “So we better be intentional and thoughtful about it.”
After Jim Enderle, 63, a retired Navy chief hospital corpsman from Quaker Hill, Conn., returned from deployment, he could not enjoy the holidays for years. He was hypervigilant for any signs of danger because rocket and mortar attacks were most possible during this time of year in Iraq. Even though he had made a pledge never to talk about his wartime experiences, consistent with his “just get through it and pick yourself up attitude,” he finally broke down and started sharing difficult feelings that showed up during holidays and other times.
“This brought my wife and me closer than we’ve ever been and led to new traditions during holidays,” Enderle said. “Now I talk about Iraqi civilians I encountered and honor their hardships and lost lives by talking about their humanity.”
• Get out of your head. When, despite everything, holidays get overwhelming and you find yourself stuck in a ruminate-worry-dread vicious cycle, getting outside can provide quick relief.
“Light, especially in the morning, activates the brain and is generally important for your mood and mental health,” said Teodor Postolache, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “It is crucial for most people with seasonal affective disorder, but it can be helpful for many of us as days get shorter and colder.”
When outside, try to move, even if it means just walking around the block. Three decades of research supports the beneficial effects of movement on our psychological health.
Finally, “try to have experiences that get you out of your mind,” said Jennifer Stellar, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “We tend to feel awe in response to an extraordinary person or object that’s hard to comprehend, outside what you normally encounter.” And awe can significantly improve our well-being as well as make us feel more connected to others.
Even though a beautiful holiday light display or frozen waterfall are more awe-inspiring, paying attention to your surroundings and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary as you stroll through a local park will probably help, as well.
Although this holiday season may fall short of your expectations and include unwanted thoughts and feelings, it can prove to be perfectly imperfect.