The holidays are a different time of year with a lot of messages and expectations being thrown our direction. The most pervasive message is that we should be shopping, should be happy and should be surrounded by loved ones. Unfortunately, the message doesn’t always get translated into reality for many of us. Below is a summary of the main struggles and stressors many people experience during the holidays with suggestions on how to cope with them.
It’s very common for people to struggle with loneliness, grief, sadness, anxiety and stress over the holidays while simultaneously thinking they should not be experiencing these emotions. Loneliness comes from the obvious reason of not being able to spend time with family or friends, and for some not having family or friends. But, with the widespread message that one should not be alone, it’s very difficult to find yourself alone. It’s common to experience grief if you have lost someone very close and are no longer able to spend time with that person. Sadness can arise from a variety of reasons, and many people feel great pressure to experience the holidays as exceptional while at the same time feeling very disconnected from people and the season. It can be a bit overwhelming and unrealistic. Anxiety and stress are extremely common as social, financial and practical obligations multiply during the holidays. Fatigue, unrealistic expectations and over-commercialization also make the holidays more difficult emotionally.
With all this said, the biggest suggestion I offer is allowing yourself to experience and listen to your emotions. If you feel any of the above feelings, let yourself feel. The emotions are telling you something and often alerting you. If you feel grief, it’s important to take the time out and feel the loss of someone you miss. Don’t deny yourself or that relationship the opportunity to grieve and feel. If you feel lonely or sad, those emotions often indicate there is an area in your life needing adjustment or filling. Although it can be difficult to build new relationships and friendships, they are an integral part of a healthy life. If you’re lacking them, take the time to have compassion towards yourself and give yourself the opportunity to seek what is missing when the time is right. Anxiety and stress are usually ways of tell us we are on overload. Prioritize. Step back. Ask yourself if everything you’re trying to juggle is necessary.
Many of my counseling clients make their first appointment with me after the holidays due to difficult time spent with family. The message we receive all around us is that family should be harmonious and fun, but for many people the opposite is true. Holidays often ignite old resentments among family members, dysfunctional family dynamics and a considerable amount of conflict, anger and hurt feelings.
When it comes to family, I urge you to take a look at how things have been in the past and be realistic. Anticipate what has happened in the past so there will be no surprises and you can prepare and protect yourself. This being said, you don’t set yourself up for tremendous letdown and anything a particular family member does pleasantly and differently will be a good surprise. If there has been a pattern of behavior established n the past, it’s not being pessimistic to expect the same, but realistic and this will serve to keep the pain and disappointment of hoping for something different.
Shopping for loved ones can be fun when the funds are there, but a tremendous source of stress and anxiety when money is short. To prevent financial stress, make abudget ahead of time and stick to it. Scale back if need be and remember what the meaning of this time of year is about for you. Make some gifts, buy less expensive gifts or shorten the list of people you buy for. Watch out for unnecessary spending throughout the weeks if you feel the gifts are absolutely necessary. There are many ways to prevent financial pitfalls during the holiday season and the biggest prevention is foresight, planning and a budget. Think ahead so you can rest assured you won’t overspend.
The holidays are full of parties, socializing and many other activities that involve our time and attention. It’s easy to forget and over-commit ourselves leaving us feeling drained. The key to not getting imbalanced during this time of year is setting boundaries and learning how to say no. It’s okay to say no to certain things and people and it’s important to prioritize. It’s healthy to say no to others sometimes and say yes to yourself. Plan ahead and leave room for you. Remember to do the things that are important to you such as keeping your routine, good diet, exercise and the particulars that mean a lot to you. You’ll be better for yourself and better for others.
Make it Different by Making it Yours
With the above said, I strongly suggest you take time to step back and examine what the holidays mean to you. It’s very easy to get caught up in the rush and commercialism of each holiday and hurry through them with little thought or attention. So, to claim them as yours and make them meaningful, reflect on each one and what it means to you. Create your own rituals. Ask yourself how you want to spend them. And, in that way “the season” will hopefully not take from you, but will offer and reflect something meaningful and pleasurable.
Sylvia Flanagan, MFT is a San Diego therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. For more information about San Diego Counseling, feel free to call or email her. Office hours are Monday through Thursday 9:00 to 6:00.