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Navigating Holiday Stress: 5 Coping Strategies to Help You Through the Holiday Season

The other day, someone asked me if our Vancouver counselling clinic slows down during the holiday season. The reality is, December is one of our busiest months. Holiday stress, holiday guilt, holiday grief… we hear it all. 

Holiday season holds multitudes. This time of year can be joyful and depressing; slow paced and over-stimulating. We want our moods to match the lights and the music, but the truth is, this time of year can also shore up old pains and disappointments.  And there’s also 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).

A few Vancouver counsellors got together recently and shared what we’re hearing from our clients about what they’re struggling with this time of year.

  • 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.

And how are people coping? Again, I turned to the team at our Vancouver counselling clinic to ask what they’re hearing. Not surprisingly, many people admit that their main coping strategies for the holiday season include drinking too much, binge watching Netflix, and ‘faking it’.

I think there’s an alternative to white knuckling it through the holidays. Here are our favourite  actionable coping strategies for a holiday season that includes triggers as well as merriness.  

1. Take a December social media break

A new type of Dry December? 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. 

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 who was going through a separation 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 self-care during the holidays actually look like? 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?”

 Notice the difference between what do I need versus what should I need? 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. What makes sense for you today? What can you do that will restore balance and help you to feel more grounded and uplifted?

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

If you’ve been struggling with depression, anxiety or struggling to adjust to a new reality, major holidays can be unexpectedly hard. Don’t have expectations either way about how you’ll feel on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve, but have a loose plan of how you might take care of yourself if it’s a difficult day. Is there an activity that usually helps you feel more grounded? A person who you find uplifting to be around? A place or a playlist that helps you shift your mood a bit? A bit of a plan can go a long way.

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.

And if your coping strategies for the holiday season just aren’t cutting it? We are here for you. Our Vancouver counselling clinic is open through the holidays. Not all of our counsellors will be seeing clients, but we have a few dedicated therapists who want to be there for you. So if you need support, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We are here to help.

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

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.