Normalizing the Not-So Happy Holidays: A Therapist’s Tips for Self-Care

November 21, 2023

by Sam S

As December approaches, holiday quotes about family, love, and the magic of the Christmas season fill your Instagram and Pinterest feed. Your thoughts— and notes app— are peppered with lists of gifts to be purchased, decorations to be put up, holiday menus to be crafted. Perhaps you’ve started to hear “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” softly playing in the background as you’re perusing the store on your weekly grocery run.

The hustle and bustle energy of the October thru December months can result in a temporary distraction from difficult emotions that may come up surrounding the holidays such as grief, loss, anger, and even shame & guilt. While it may seem like the most wonderful time of the year to everyone else, here is your guarantee that for many, it may be a bit more complex.

Grief seems to be a prominent theme surrounding the holidays. Those who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling, child, spouse, or close friend may feel a deep, gaping hole— a longing to be able to spend time with their loved one once more. However, grief can also be experienced without the loss of a loved one. Many people grieve for what could have been. Family members who have mental illnesses, are unsupportive, or otherwise make the holiday frustrating/difficult can cause a myriad of emotions such as deep sadness, anger, shame, guilt, and even fear. Each of these emotions are normal reactions, but the experience of feeling them can be a bit uncomfortable.

Self-care activities may serve as a way to emotionally regulate your brain and body, and help you overcome uncomfortable emotions. Self-care looks different for everyone, but it’s important to be gentle with yourself with whatever activity you choose. Can you urge yourself to breathe through the uncomfortable emotions? Take a nonjudgemental stance towards your grief? Set boundaries about how you will be spending the holidays? Other stress-relieving options could include gently moving your body (gentle walk, yoga), reaching out to trusted friends/family members for support, journaling or writing a letter describing how you’re feeling, or listening to music or a podcast. Ultimately, remember that all emotions are safe to be felt. Remind yourself that you have felt these feelings before and gotten through them, and you are capable of feeling them again in their full capacity, using some of the above coping tools— and perhaps others— to manage.

Based on my own professional experience, adults of all ages have some level of complex emotions surrounding the holidays. Know that if this is your experience, you are not alone. Awareness of these emotions, willingness to work through them, and the courage it takes to experiment with new ways of coping are all tools that can help you through. As always, if you are struggling to manage heavy and/or painful emotions on your own, please reach out to a licensed therapist to gain some support. Finally, to any and all who are grieving this holiday season: you are seen, your feelings are valid, and you are not alone.

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