Is it the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?: Solutions for Surviving the Holidays

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… So the song says. I’ve heard it at least a dozen times since Thanksgiving in shopping malls, the pharmacy, and on the radio while driving around. The holiday decorations, music, and festivities of the season surround us. Yet, for many, the holidays are far from wonderful or happy. Many of us had a difficult year, whether the reason was financial, family oriented, or some other challenge that prevents us from easily transitioning into the joyful spirit of celebration. We may have struggled with chronic illness or disability, unemployment, the loss of a loved one, or another tragedy. Or, perhaps, we just don’t feel like being festive. Whatever the reason we lack holiday spirit, it can feel forced upon us. I hope to bring you good tidings by letting you know that there are ways to get through the holiday season with joy, or at least some peace of mind. 

Don’t force yourself. You don’t have to enjoy the holidays in the same ways that others do. If you don’t feel up to buying personal gifts for everyone, think about what you do feel comfortable doing. Suggest a gift exchange, so you only need to buy a gift for one person from the group or family. If you don’t want to completely remove yourself from the festivities, choose events where you feel most comfortable. Attend parties for shorter periods of time so that you may enjoy yourself briefly and then excuse yourself before it becomes overwhelming. There are times when stretching yourself outside your comfort zone can be healthy and helpful. The holidays are often not these times, as the expectations that you experience or perceive may give you greater stress than is necessary. Let others know that you are struggling, even if you don’t want to go into details. Most people can be very compassionate if you give them the opportunity.

Figure out what you enjoy about the holidays. If nothing strikes you, perhaps you can explore. Do you enjoy the music? Do you enjoy attending religious services? Or do you enjoy quiet evenings at home sipping hot chocolate? There are simple pleasures you can find that do not involve the high energy festivities that our culture emphasizes. You can enjoy the holidays your way.

The expectations that our friends and families have of us during the holidays can feel overwhelming. Think about what you can manage, and talk with family members or loved ones ahead of time. Many people are unable to empathize with pain or grief. However, communicating our thoughts and feelings, regardless of the response, can still be a proactive step in taking good care of ourselves. Attending smaller family events or not staying as long can be an option. Keeping conversations over holiday meals to topics that do not engage in conflict is a good tactic for managing difficult relationships and personality clashes. Loneliness can be a major factor affecting millions of people during the holidays. Many people spend the holidays alone while watching others enjoy themselves with family and friends. If you’re going to be alone this holiday season, think about volunteering at a shelter or some place where other people would welcome your presence. People who volunteer during the holidays report greater satisfaction, not only in the act of giving time to others, but in the companionship and the gratitude they receive. If volunteering is too much for where you are, perhaps you can find others in your neighborhood or community who are not with family and have a small meal together or just gather for hot chocolate and conversation. Our world has become increasingly more isolated in recent years for many reasons, so we must proactively seek friendships and community. Sometimes this is extremely anxiety provoking, but you can start small with one or two people to see where it leads. Ultimately, people who find companionship in even the smallest of circles draw great joy from it and find that it can be a game changer over an otherwise dull and dreary holiday season.

Sometimes before we can enjoy others genuinely, we must appreciate time on our own: developing solitude is an important part of developing community. Take time out of your busy holiday schedule to enjoy moments of peaceful reflection. If you are alone, self reflection can be a great way to set goals for the coming year and to think about what you would like to be different in your life. Reading, meditating, praying, going for walks, and writing in a journal can be great ways to engage in much-needed introspection. I call it taking a break from every day life. This does not mean that you would exclude yourself from activities that you may enjoy or totally isolate. It simply means that you take time to be with your self in a meaningful way to rest, reflect, and think about how your future can unfold.

Gratitude is an important way to both reflect on our blessings and achieve personal growth. Being intentional about showing gratitude can make a huge difference in the way that our brains process the events of our lives. Think back on the previous year. Can you identify events or experiences that you appreciate? Are there people who you would like to thank or who you were glad to have in your life? Numerous studies have shown that demonstrating gratitude lifts our spirits almost instantly. When we recognize that there is good in our lives, despite the pain, struggles, and challenges, our brain develops a new perspective that improves our self awareness and contextualizes our circumstances within a bigger picture.

Regardless of what’s troubling you this season, I hope these strategies allow you to find peace and joy during the coming holidays and to look forward to a new year.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Search for Peace in 2016: Can The Nation Heal After a Bitter Election?

The Search for Peace in 2016: Can The Nation Heal After a Bitter Election?

Regardless of our political ideologies, we can all agree that the 2016 presidential election was bitter and highly divisive. The nation woke up to a surprise on November 9, when the now president-elect Donald Trump gave the victory speech and prepared to assemble his transition team and his cabinet. Millions of Americans cheered alongside Trump’s team, while others wept or were out raged. Over the course of the past two weeks, there have been thousands protesting the election, and inauguration day will likely be a day of protests and unrest, along with those who will celebrate. However, even those who are happy with the outcome have much to fear, as protesters and other disgruntled voters have accused Trump supporters of many things and many insults have been exchanged on both sides of the party line. So, the question remains: Where does America go from here?

Turning Toward Empathy: A New Perspective on Depression

Turning Toward Empathy: A New Perspective on Depression

Depression is a complicated condition that can be chronic and severe. It can result in debilitating loss of functioning across areas of one’s life. But as is the case with most circumstances, one must take a series of steps forward in order to achieve freedom from the grip of depression. Many people may be surprised at how shifting the focus from an internal perspective to a more balanced view that includes others, and intentional acts of empathy and compassion can begin to change one’s perspective in positive and hopeful ways.

Finding Peace and Resilience When Tragedy Strikes

Finding Peace and Resilience When Tragedy Strikes

Whether or not we are directly affected by a tragedy in that we have lost loved ones, or we have been indirectly affected by the shock, fear, and intense emotions that follow, we have no choice but to find ways to seek comfort and support. In addition, we must bounce back – we have no choice in that. The only alternative is to give up, hide inside of our homes, and stop living a joyful and productive life. That is not an alternative that most of us want to entertain. This month’s article provides some guidance in how to survive and thrive when every day there seems to be a violent headline.

Redefining mental health: it's not just about illness

When the term "mental health" is used in conversation, most people tend to think of it in terms of diagnoses and disorders.

A discussion about mental health is not only about treating mental illness; it's also about a primary care approach similar to the model of physical health that has been encouraged by modern medicine. Taking care of our bodies, stimulating our brain, and managing our emotions are all important aspects of obtaining good mental health.  Perhaps we should call it "mental wellness.”

How are emotional intelligence and resilience connected?

I wonder what would happen if we started a revolution to promote emotional intelligence as the best way of building resilience? What would happen if we taught emotional intelligence as part of an educational curriculum, alongside of other core areas of knowledge? In the world today, where children are forced to grow up quickly; where they are exposed to tragedy and violence in every direction, and where we can never predict when someone will have to endure an unexpected loss or prolonged suffering – why isn't emotional intelligence widely known as the key to resilience?

Why Starting Early Matters in Mental Health

Why Starting Early Matters in Mental Health

As I sat with a middle school student recently, who is struggling to succeed in school and manage her severe anxiety and depression, I could not help feeling genuinely sad. As a psychologist, I have learned how to manage my own emotions so that I can be most effective as a clinician. But this particular case really touched my heart, because it was one in which the parents had the education and resources to seek support. They chose not to, because they were very concerned about how their daughter would be perceived if she received mental health diagnoses or treatment. Fortunately, they now fully support her need for therapy and school interventions.

The Duchess of Cambridge Tackles Mental Health

Perhaps the most encouraging news story in the past couple of weeks has been the announcement of Duchess Kate of Cambridge's plans to tackle the stigma associated with mental illnesses, particularly as it relates to children. She was so bold as to proclaim to the press last week that if either of her children were experiencing emotional or psychological problems, she would not hesitate to seek professional help. First lady Michelle Obama will join her in the cause. This is very good news for the field of mental health in that an endorsement of this magnitude will hopefully raise awareness of the importance of early intervention and the need for proactively addressing children's emotional and behavioral problems.

Mental health professionals contend with this issue daily, as parents hesitate to pursue early treatment for their children due to concerns about stigma attached to therapy, and fail to follow through with the recommendations of mental health providers. Perhaps the endorsement of royalty, accompanied by the support and partnership of the first lady, will put hesitant parents at ease. Let's hope so.
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