Written by Lauren Doucher
The holidays are here again, and with them, many people experience a variety of emotions that make them feel far from being of “good cheer.” Maybe you are grieving the loss of a loved one. Perhaps you couldn’t make it home for the holidays this year, or you have a loved one in treatment. Maybe the entire idea of Christmas is simply overwhelming while you are dealing with mental health challenges such as depression or addiction.
The holiday season is the only time of the year when people seem to make “feeling happy” a norm. Maybe they mean well as they all wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, or whatever you celebrate. You can’t go anywhere without holiday songs jingling in the background again and again. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The happiest season of all! Happy, happy, joy, joy!”
And then there’s consumerism pushing you to buy this and that – put a mountain of presents under your tree, or your family will be disappointed. Spend a ton of money to build the perfect holiday table, the perfect meal, the perfect party, get the perfect gifts, the perfect outfit, and don’t forget to be happy and spread good cheer to all. Don’t have money? Apply for this credit card and get a loan! It doesn’t matter, you can pay it all in January.
Whew! This is all too overwhelming. I don’t like being told what to do or what to buy, and I especially don’t like being told how to feel. I struggled with the holiday season for the longest time, especially during years when I was grieving the loss of a loved one and did not feel like “bringing good cheer.” That is until I figured out what I had to do to make it through and truly find my own kind of joy amidst the noise we often encounter this time of year.
The whole winter tradition of getting all stressed out and going into debt to show your love for others is a recent invention mostly prompted by the media and by major retailers in order to drive up their sales. If you look back at the way we used to celebrate before Santa and the more Americanized values, the focus tended to fall more on celebrating Mother Nature’s cycles of light and darkness.
Many cultures celebrated the winter solstice – the longest night of the year was actually a way to mark the return of the light, since after the winter solstice, the warmer, brighter days would slowly start to return, leaving the darkest part of the year and embracing unseen growth as we root ourselves in the quiet work of new beginnings. The winter solstice was a celebration but also a way to connect with nature, as the depths of winter and longer nights are an invitation for rest and introspection. This time helped us prepare for the energizing energy of the warmer months so we could feel renewed and ready by the time the sun comes back around in spring.
Fast forward a few centuries, and this whole concept evolved into filling shopping carts full of gifts, standing in lines, fighting the crowds and traffic, and trying to live up to unrealistic expectations of a “perfect holiday.”
I am here to say that no matter what you are experiencing, it’s okay to feel your feelings, whatever they may be. Whether you are grieving, missing a loved one, or fighting back against your own challenges, please be kind to yourself. You are not a bad person for not feeling the “holiday cheer” or cringing every time you hear a Christmas tune at the store. Treat yourself with grace and try to find time for the things that really matter this year. Here are some survival tips that I have personally learned along the way and that have made all the difference.
Yes, seriously. It’s that simple. I find myself doing deep breathing exercises when I am trying to navigate a crowded grocery store and start feeling anxious or irate because every square inch of the store seems to be filled with holiday shoppers when all I wanted was just to grab a gallon of milk.
Practicing deep breathing can help take your body out of “fight or flight mode” and lower your stress levels when you find yourself struggling with holiday traffic, work-related issues, or whatever spikes your anxiety. Deep breathing for just a few minutes every day evokes a relaxation response, lowers your blood pressure, and gives you an opportunity to calm your mind and shift your focus.
Connect to what matters.
I’m not talking about pulling out your laptop or smartphone and going online. The winter solstice is an opportunity to connect with yourself, with others, and with nature. You can opt out of the holiday hustle and bustle our society has artificially created and take time to be alone, rest, read a good book, or curl up with your favorite blanket and a movie. Take time to connect with those who matter most to you, whether they are family or close friends.
No matter how you choose to do it, try to have a one-on-one conversation. That doesn’t mean you have to throw an elaborate party – you can pick up the phone or even send a text letting someone know you’re thinking of them. Invite your favorite person over for coffee. If they can’t be there in person, you can still talk via video chat.
Finally, take time to connect with nature. Several studies have indicated that a simple nature walk can effectively improve mental health. If you are like me (an inhabitant of the “frozen north,” a.k.a. the Midwest), bundle up and go out anyway. I promise you that getting outside, even when it’s chilly, will do wonders.
Do the holidays your way.
News flash: there is no “right” way to celebrate the holidays. You don’t always have to be the host of a large holiday dinner. You don’t even have to cook – unless cooking makes you happy. I find cooking to be therapeutic, but if that’s not your thing, it’s okay to order a family meal somewhere or go against the grain and just get your favorite Chinese takeout dish.
You can use the same approach for presents – many people are now realizing that Christmas presents do not have to be something bought at a store. I gave everyone homemade presents this year, such as jam and fudge. In previous years, my present was a weekend trip to our favorite destination (which is less than a two-hour drive away). Go rogue and do the holidays your own way! You can make your own traditions.
Find ways to be of service.
I’ll be honest – sometimes, we can get so caught up in our own world and focused on our own issues that we forget to look outside of our own bubble. When you are dealing with emotional pain, it’s no different. Your own issues become heavier and more suffocating the more you think about them.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned to get through these situations is to shift my focus away from myself and find a way to be of service to others. When you focus on helping someone else, it can benefit your own mental health. Helping other people simply makes you feel good and can trigger a lot of positive feelings that can ultimately help you improve your self-esteem.
Whether you choose to volunteer at a local organization or simply help a neighbor clear snow off their sidewalk, being of service can help you put the messy stuff into perspective and encourage you to realize that maybe you have more in your life to be thankful for than you may have previously thought.
Take care of yourself.
The holidays can be hard for many people, but caring for yourself by joining a group therapy or individual therapy program can truly make a positive impact on your mental health. Plus by APN has a team of skilled professionals who can assist you in your mental health journey with in-person and virtual therapy. You can attend individual sessions or even join group sessions for more community support.
Plus by APN also has a variety of integrated treatments that can be a game changer for those struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, and a variety of other mental health challenges. Whatever you may be going through, there is no shame in admitting you need help. If you can’t seem to find a way to get through this season without support, reach out to Plus by APN, and you’ll be sure to get the help you need.
I hope you can try at least one of these tips to get through the holidays a bit more easily and find your own kind of “merry” this season. Remember – in the words of Maya Angelou, “Every storm runs out of rain.” You got this.