How to cope with holiday stress

The other day, someone asked me if our clinic slows down quite a bit for the holidays (only a non-therapist would wonder such a thing!). The reality is,  we can’t get people in fast enough. The holidays can be magical and fulfilling, yes! But, they can also bring up a lot. of.  sh*t. 

Consider this: Our suffering is heightened when there is a discrepancy between how we feel and how we believe we ‘should be’ feeling (and how we perceive everyone else is feeling).

For those who are grieving a loss, such as a relationship break-up or death of a loved one, holidays are a searingly painful reminder of the absence of the person they are so badly missing.

For those who are lonely, a holiday that celebrates togetherness and exposes people to a multitude of ‘plus one’ invitations can feel like a kick in the stomach..

For those who are struggling to have a child, or grieving a pregnancy loss,  the many social media posts of babies and children adorned with Santa hats are a special kind of hell.

People who have difficult family relationships dread the tension of the annual family dinner, and the difficult emotions that can bring up.

For people who feel depressed, lonely, stressed, and financially strapped, the holidays are overwhelming and guilt-ridden for just not being able to pull it off.

Identify with any of the above? There is still perhaps an alternative to dragging yourself through the holidays. It will mean making some very intentional choices, but I would suggest that this is preferable to white knuckling it or hiding. Below are some suggestions for taking care of yourself through the holiday season (and maybe even enjoying a moment here and there).

1. Be a mindful user of social media.

There is nothing wrong with a vacation from social media – especially if you find that the endless stream of cute kids, hiding elves, and family photos are triggering your FOMO. Or, cultivate honest dialogue on social media by posing questions such as “how are you coping with stress/pressure/busy-ness during the holidays?” or sharing things you actually do find genuinely inspiring, Christmas related or not. There are definitely more people than you think who find this season to be challenging, and it is possible that others out there would appreciate a dose of honesty.

2. Create a new ritual that makes sense for your life right now. 

If you find that you’re not looking forward to celebrating in the same way as you have in previous years, it could be a sign that you need a new ritual that better reflects your life right now. What do you value? Reflect on your most meaningful priorities and develop a holiday plan stemming from this (it could even turn into an annual ritual)!

Recently, a client admitted that she just didn’t want to go to the annual Christmas party hosted by a family in their circle. She didn’t want to do nothing for the holidays, but she knew the idea of being asked a bunch of ‘catch up’ related questions about her life was the furthest thing from what she wanted this year. After some exploring, she decided to organise a Boxing Day snowshoe with her closest friends. It gave her something to look forward to in what has been a difficult season. It allowed her to be social, but in a way in which she could choose to open up or chose to just keep it light, depending on her mood that day.

Making a plan that ties in your values and your most genuine connections – rather than going to events out of a sense of duty – is empowering and meaningful.

3.  Ask yourself: “what do I need right now?”

We talk about self-care all the time, but what does it actually mean? When going through a difficult time or when feeling generally off-kilter, it is helpful to check in with ourselves on a regular basis and ask, “What do I need right now?” The more we ask this question, the better we become at discerning the subtleties of our own needs. Sometimes, what we need is to be around people and have a good laugh; other times, we need to be alone and have a good cry (and if you’ve been spending a lot of time doing either one of these things, there is a good chance that you need the opposite in order to rebalance). Sometimes we need to buck up and face the world; other times, it is perfectly reasonable to opt out and regroup alone. At times, being creative does the trick, other times, a burst of activity really nails it. What makes sense for you today? What can you do that will restore balance and help you to feel more grounded and uplifted?

(Bonus points for you if you pay this one forward:  revise the typical “what are you doing for the holidays?” question to “how are you taking care of yourself over the holidays?”)

4.  Have a plan in place for the big days (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Eve).

Even if you pretend not to care that it’s Christmas or New Years, once the day arrives, you may feel somewhat lost if you haven’t given any thought to how you will spend these days and nights (and painfully aware of the fact that many others are unavailable). So plan in advance how you want to spend the evening or day, in a way that will actually mean something to you (see #2 and #3 above). You can always change your mind, should something else arise, but it still helps take away some of the anxiety of how you are going to deal with the (loaded) holiday if you have a plan to fall back on.

5. Choose good people.

This is true all the time, of course, not just over the holidays, but all the more important when you are going through a hard time. When seeking out the company of others, consider goodness of fit. Some friends are great at lifting your spirits and having fun,, but have difficulty just being present with you when you’re having a difficult day. Know who to seek out depending on what you need, your mood, and the occasion.

Wishing you peace and balance through this season, and all others.

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