In the last two weeks, I have talked with so many friends and clients about the holidays and what it brings up for them. While we are sold the idea of the magic of the season, most of the folks I talked to shared hard stories of everything from feeling stressed with all of the social and family engagements and pressure to feeling lonely and sad about family relationships that are severed because of dysfunction or trauma.

One of the major challenges of the holiday’s boils down to expectations. Hallmark, social media, and our society paints a picture of twinkly lights, bottles of champagne, cheery gatherings, beautifully wrapped gifts under the tree, and a crackling fire keeping everyone warm. Consumerism and materialism are constantly knocking at our door to buy all the things and this pressure only ramps up during the holidays. However, for most people, even if the holiday appears picture perfect, it doesn’t FEEL that way.

I remember a professor of mine from grad school saying that many people feel better being at least two state lines away from their family of origin or their in-laws. And even if that isn’t the case with you, and you feel generally close with your family, the truth is that spending extended time together as many do over the holidays can bring up stress and anxiety or even pain, hurt, or unresolved trauma.

Reality at best often includes the stressors like perceived obligations as well as competing wishes and traditions like what time we must eat, what will be served, which presents should be wrapped versus unwrapped if they are from Santa or how we will open gifts- one at a time or all at once. Traditions themselves can become problematic when there is disagreement on exactly what the tradition should be. At most family gatherings, there are also interpersonal conflict and differences of opinion in terms of religion, politics, or even how you are parenting your kids.

Whether or not you like to hang out with your extended family, it is easy to feel a sense of obligation around how you spend your time during the holidays. There are also often expectations around gift giving or what you do as a family that might bring up extra strain financially or even in regard to values- for example, if you tend toward minimalism, you might not want your kids to receive piles and piles of gifts that have been generously given but infringe on the life you are trying to build. Or, maybe you don’t feel you have the finances to be buying gifts for everyone in the family or going to holiday shows and events but that seems to be the explicit or implicit expectation. One friend said that for her, the hard part about the holidays is, “Managing expectations. Yours, mine, the kids, everybody’s. It always seems like everything is a hassle and then a let-down but then we post pictures like it was amazing.”

Additional challenges can arise when there are two sides of the family (or perhaps even more if you or your family members are divorced). It can feel like a human tug of war to try to fit everyone and everything in and can leave all of us feeling exhausted instead of recharged after the “most wonderful time of the year.” As extended families grow larger through marriage and birth, dynamics often become trickier and it can feel really hard as traditions shift and relationships change. It is common for there to be struggle and even grief as family dynamics shift and as grown children form their own families and traditions.

At worst, reality can be much more difficult and dark. Things like illness, grief, abuse, addiction, major mental illness, or a family history of neglect or dysfunction can make the holidays a really difficult time. I also have clients who feel deep sadness and loneliness around the holidays. Whether they are single, cutoff from family members, or are married with kids but don’t have a good relationship and are far away from extended family, the feelings of hopelessness and sadness of not having people, close relationships, or family tend to increase this time of year.

I know of people fighting cancer this year, another recovering in ICU from a stroke, and a friend of a friend whose husband is fighting for his life. I will cover more about grief and the holidays in episode three, so be sure to check that out, but for the sake of this podcast, I just want to name that there are some people navigating some really difficult times like their first holiday without a loved one or knowing it is the last.  

Let’s talk about some practical things we can do to help our mental health during this holiday season.

  1. I would encourage you to make a list or a calendar of what is important to you over the holidays. Time off is precious and for many of us, rare, so taking time to really assess what your needs are (or what your family’s needs and wishes are) is important.
  2. Identify what others (including work and family or friends) are expecting of you. You might want to assess how you feel toward each of these things and also what the emotional cost of these events might be. Based on all of this, you might choose to set boundaries around what you say yes and no to. Hard truth: what you choose to do or not to do will likely disappoint others. This is hard, but it is also important to live your one authentic life. People might feel disappointed, upset, or frustrated, but boundaries protect the relationship so we don’t become resentful. If you need help with boundaries, I highly suggest my friend and mentor’s book that was just released- Setting Boundaries that Stick by Juliane Taylor Shore.
  3. Check in with yourself. Pay attention to when you start to feel overwhelmed or stressed and give yourself a chance to reset (go to the restroom, do grounding exercises, go outside, call a friend, take a walk).
  4. Keep up with your self-care as much as possible- exercise, sleep, and eat healthy when you are able to. Take breaks and check in with yourself.
  5. Talk with friends or a therapist to get support around navigating the holidays. Knowing you are not alone in your struggle or feeling heard can go a long way.
  6. Limit drinking/numbing- bring awareness and mindfulness to these behaviors and when possible, talk to someone or choose a healthier behavior to help you self-soothe. That said, don’t be hard on yourself when you do find yourself numbing as your body is doing the best it can to self-regulate and feel better.
  7. The reality is that the holidays are probably not going to be perfect. Know that people will do the things they do and work on helping yourself stay in a better place by setting appropriate time boundaries around what you are able to do and give yourself an exit plan if you need to. Don’t strain relationships unnecessarily – avoid triggering topics and know in advance about how much time to spend. Allow yourself an out and stay for an amount of time that feels doable for you. If there is violence, abuse, or someone is doing something that makes you or your family unsafe, it may be important to set physical boundaries or not attend even if that means upsetting others.
  8. Remember that you and others are generally doing the best they can.
  9. As you are with the reality of holiday, grief may come up as it might feel disappointing or sad.
  10. When possible, practice gratitude. Look for what is good but also seek connection and support in the hard.