“Beating the Holiday Blues”

 by The Rev. Sarah McCaslin, MDiv, LMSW


Consider the following yes/no questions:

❖Does the holiday season ever fill you with a sense of dread?

❖Do you often wish that the calendar would jump from October to January?

❖Are you missing someone this year?

❖Are you anxious about encountering certain family members at a holiday gathering?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you are a normal human being with complex feelings about the holidays.

The holiday season for many people isn’t just tinsel and festivities. For those who have lost loved ones, or have difficult relationships with family members, the holiday season can be tricky to navigate, at best, and, at worst, a trigger for increased feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. Memories can be painful; obligations, overwhelming. The season of joy can turn quickly into a season of stress.

Our culture of ‘jolliness’ doesn’t help, either. Commercials promising warm family reunions fail to acknowledge that even the happiest of families eventually encounter loss or strain. Turning on the television, or walking through the mall or down the street can be an assault to the senses- bug-eyed snowmen shaking their bellies, pumpkin-spiced everything, one-sided messages of peace and love and season’s greetings. Enough, already.

Below are some suggestions for managing the holiday season, whether you are grieving, in complex family relationships, or simply at your wit’s end with forced holiday cheer.

❖Spend time going to your favorite places, doing your favorite things, or sharing your favorite company as a way of bringing forth positive feelings with minimal effort. Whether it’s a hike in the woods, a spin class, trivia night with colleagues, or a solo dance party (a wise person once noticed, “You can’t not dance to Michael Jackson”), schedule moments of pleasure for yourself throughout the season.

❖Remember that “self-care” is not selfish. Consider what you need for the season, not simply what others expect of you. Say ‘no’ to a holiday party that will do nothing but drain you. When confronted with multiple family obligations, acknowledge that you don’t know if you’ll attend or how long you’ll stay. Setting expectations ahead of time can relieve you of commitments that increase isolation and sadness. And always give yourself permission to change your mind.

❖Try not to pretend. While you may be good at ‘putting on a happy face,’ there is an emotional cost to your performance. Instead, try to say one true thing. It doesn’t have to encompass the entirety of your current emotional experience, but a small enough truth to feel authentic. If you feel like your world is falling apart, instead of saying, “I’m great!” or “Everything is terrible!” try saying, “I’m doing the best I can right now,” or “I’m hanging in there.”

❖If you are mourning the loss of a loved one, ask for what you need and be specific. From friends and family who have offered their assistance, make specific requests-to take your kids for an afternoon, so that you can rest; or, to be a buffer between you and your well-meaning but exhausting relatives.

❖If you are caring for someone who is mourning a loss, avoid platitudes. Your job isn’t to fix them, or to give them advice. Your role is to say, “I’m sorry you are hurting; I’m here for you.” Make your offers to help specific. Instead of saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” try “I’d like to bring dinner on Tuesday night. Would that be OK?” Open-ended offers unintentionally place the burden on the griever.

❖If you are spiritual, take the time to access those rituals and experiences that tap into a deeper sense of the season, whatever that may be. Religious holidays have, in some ways, been taken hostage by our consumer culture, but it is easy to dip below the surface to access the mystery, hope and meaning that come with religious traditions.

May you have a gentle and fulfilling holiday season.

Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute
50 Fulton St 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10038

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