December 23, 2019

Brightening the Holidays

Mental Health & Wellbeing

The holiday season can be a mixed experience for many. For some, it’s a season of stress, grief, conflict, or an odd mix of joy and sadness wrapped up in an annoying flashy bow. So many things come into play: family dynamics, increased financial obligations, to-do lists a mile long, scrambling to get everything done, pressure to feel joyful and live up to expectations, etc. These can color a glittering and festive landscape grey.

Are you someone who would rather crawl into a cave until the season is over? Does the anticipation of the season feel like a weighted backpack of negative emotions and stress which is hard to take off? First, I want you to know you are not alone. This unique season packages together a group of dynamics that challenges even the most skilled communicators and naturally joyful people among us. Although there is not a magic pill to take that will turn you into a sparkling festive Dr. Suess character from Whoville, there may be some small things you can do this season to poke a few holes into the grey landscape around you.


Give yourself a break. During my college and post-college years I went home to see my family every Christmas. Despite being away for an entire year from the rhythm of life with my family, I was always surprised by how I automatically fell back into the routine of being home and playing my role. For fifty-one weeks of the year I was this self-sufficient, independent person. I provided for myself, I made decisions freely, I engaged in interesting conversations, etc. Yet, when I came home, I stayed close, I let my family pay for dinner, I kept the peace, and I was constantly engaged with my family. For that one week of the year, I felt as if I lived a totally different life. There was much joy in going home for me, but it also felt tiring and somewhat stifling.

Then one year, I tried something different. My plans were set before I arrived. Several times throughout the week I went to a local coffee shop and enjoyed a couple of hours by myself. I enjoyed good coffee, an interesting book, or caught up on emails and connection with my friends. It was as if my regular life was breaking into my family life, instead of being two separate worlds. This small act of getting away was so refreshing, but difficult to prioritize because of the expectations that I had of myself, as well as the expectations others had of me. My family was perplexed, curious, and maybe a bit worried. But since that year, going home has felt more relaxing, more in line with who I have become, and more freeing in choosing how I want to be while home.

While your situation is unique from my own, I wonder what kind of break would be refreshing for you this holiday season? Maybe a break means adding something new to your routine or taking something away. A break might be getting a literal break from your family, a break from your to-do list, a break from pleasing others or expensive gifts, or even a break from your assigned role.


Connecting with others can bring calm, encouragement, hope, or peace into this busy season. The holiday season can stir loneliness. When loneliness is pressing in, it is not uncommon to respond by isolating oneself further. The thing that is needed – connection – can be difficult to pursue. Challenge yourself to connect in some way with others, especially if it is the last thing you want to do.

The famous psychologist, Alfred Adler once said, “Overcoming difficulties leads to courage, self-respect, and knowing yourself.” Finding connection might be asking a comforting friend to have coffee, take in some lights, or attend an event together. It might be taking a risk with someone you don’t know too well, or even asking the cashier at the grocery store how they celebrate the holiday. For those who consider themselves to be spiritual people, religious communities can be a good avenue of connection. These communities tend to encourage slowing down, considering a different meaning or experience for the holiday, or offering ways to combat loneliness or disappointment.


Practice intentional generosity towards others. Giving to others can help break you out of over-indulging in your own stress, elicit gratitude, expand your perspective on the season, and bring emotional balance. Alder was known to tell his depressed patients, “You can be cured in fourteen days if you follow this prescription. Try to think every day how you can please someone.” For the past several years, my family has enjoyed spending an afternoon in the city taking in festive decorations, pop up festivals, and yummy food. We combine this festive experience by passing out wrapped presents to homeless individuals we pass along our way. We stop a moment to learn their names and how they are struggling, and briefly engage as fellow travelers in life. It is a highlight of our holiday season, and brings more joy to us than I anticipate.

Despite such positive experiences, I find it challenging every year to commit to this small thing. Giving grace to myself in this season seems to help me find the capacity to give to others. So besides giving to others, plan to give yourself grace for the ways you miss the mark. Give yourself space to grieve or be sad this Christmas if those emotions are stirred. Give yourself the gift of being honest about what is hard, stressful, sad, or lonely. Practicing tenderness towards yourself can build capacity in your heart to be tender towards others.


Planning and strategizing in advance can go a long way in decreasing stress. What is the most stressful part of the holiday season for you? Try brainstorming a list of options that might decrease the stress you experience. The key is to consider realistic options. Having a goal to eliminate stress completely will likely leave you frustrated.

Sometimes, the smallest change to the usual pattern can make a big difference. For example, if hunting for the perfect gift is overwhelming for you, maybe brainstorm gift ideas, and pick a gift before going shopping. Or, adopt a mantra, such as, “There are no perfect gifts.” or “I’m not going for perfect, but just something nice.” Sometimes we can get bogged down with lengthy to-do lists, and find ourselves stressed because we are scrambling up to the last minute.

Try prioritizing your list; the things at the bottom are less important and therefore less stressful if they go undone. You may need to make a plan for responding differently in conversations, or a plan for grieving a loss, or making room to be more present with your children. Whatever it is, take a moment to brainstorm and plan something a little different this year.

Counseling can be a wonderful gift in many seasons. It can be a place to get a break, connect, and develop goals towards caring for yourself and others. Discover the gift of counseling this holiday and give us a call today!

Written by therapist Amie Bilson

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