Updated: Dec 13, 2019
When I was around 21 my parents finalized their divorce, this was easily one of the most difficult times in my life. Regardless of age, the impact of divorce on kids is hard, and I was no exception. I didn't realize that holidays from that moment on were going to be a forced family affair. For the first few years I really hoped things would be okay, but it was weird and awkward. I struggled with the tension and loneliness I could see my parents experiencing, and of course I felt it too. If I could help it, I created obligations and avoided being around sappy holiday reminders of what I used to have.
Years later, after I was married and started having kids my heart started softening, not because “I” liked the holidays, but because my kids lit up like Christmas trees at the thought. Like the Grinch my heart started growing a few sizes larger. If you have struggled during the holidays you can imagine there is more to my story, but for the sake of keeping it short (sort of) and hopefully helpful, I will save some of the details for another time.
I think we can all agree that the Holidays are designed to foster togetherness with family, remind us of love, thankfulness, consumerism, overspending, and of course overeating (Sorry my cynical side I couldn’t resist). Seriously though, many of you reading this struggle relating to the family or friends piece. In the worst case scenarios your guests over the holidays are Sadness, Anger, Disgust, Depression and so on. Yep, life is not always as it should be, or how we would like it to be. During this season loneliness can often become more pronounced as we are confronted with so much of what we don’t have. So for those of you in this camp, fight the Eeyore belief that you are just meant to be alone, and it will never get better - “it’s not much of a tail.” Find support, fight the lies running free in your head, seek out and practice better or different coping strategies. Remember, you are not required to live the blues, it makes good music, but not good times during the holidays.
Okay, so a quick piece of education to debunk commonly held myths about the holidays. Per the the Annenberg Public Policy Center out of the University of Pennsylvania (Dec. 7th 2016) it is a myth that suicide rates increase during the holiday season. The truth is that the incidence of suicide drops during the Holiday season and actually increase during the spring - There is however no clear answer why. But lets not be fooled Suicide is still a major issue in America today, Per the CDC (2014) the Average rate of suicide per day is around 117, that’s right, PER DAY!
Truth, Holiday blues still exist, and if you tend to get a little down or feel the blues there could be more going on. Depression, Trauma, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the like could be occurring. If this is the case, please consider contacting a counselor/therapist registered with the state and/or your medical doctor for further evaluations. Out side of that, below are a list of some do's and don'ts to better cope with the holidays.
Keep your expectations in check:
You don’t always get what you want, things go wrong, you and your plans are not perfect, you are only in control of your self so don’t worry about what is not in your control.
Don’t over do it: Boundaries!!!!
Delegate, say no, simplify your schedule (yes this is actually a choice), plan for what matters most family, friends, pets, etc.
Keep it social, Keep it fun
Isolation is not your friend, so find some live music, beautiful sights, go where people are, get involved, volunteer, the sky is the limit. I think it goes without saying, but avoid the Grinch like Negative Nelly’s, no extra downers necessary.
Budget, Budget, Budget
Don’t over spend! It is a good life lesson to live with in your means. Giving does not always have to be monetary. Make something, write something, sing something, be creative and put your heart into it.
Get in the sun!!!
If the sun is not available find a sun lamp (Full Spectrum Lamp), 20 min can make a difference - This can be very helpful with SAD
If you can help it maintain a healthy diet. Over eating the wrong types of foods can negatively impact your mood, and energy level. You may get that nice feeling hit of dopamine running through your brain but it doesn’t last, and for those with predispositions other eating issues can arise or return.
Think Happy Thoughts Peter
Yes I know it sounds like fluff but the research coming out of the field of Positive Psychology suggests that we have greater life satisfaction when we are optimistic, expressing gratitude and thinking positively. I imagine this is fairly intuitive, we feel better when we have happy thoughts, and we feel worse when we are cycling in negative thinking. I know we can’t always just “Stop It”, and retraining our brain to perceive, interpret and think differently takes time, but feeling better has got to be worth the effort right?!?!
Find a Reason to be Grateful
Like happy thoughts this is a matter of effort, time and consistency. Like happy thoughts this can provide a little extra boost of the feel good dopamine - Similar to over eating but nicer on the waistline, arteries, heart, energy level, and so on. If we create consistent behaviors looking for reasons to be grateful you can even increase your overall emotional intelligence.
Did you know that St. Nicolas (The real Santa Claus) was a pretty giving guy, and because of his influence we have this holiday notion of giving. He would give money in socks (stockings) hanging out of windows, feed the poor, and even provide blankets and clothes. Did you know that giving actually creates longer lasting feelings of satisfaction, whereas receiving is a fleeting feeling. Yup, philanthropic behaviors help to promote greater feelings of life satisfaction. A good antidote to being down in the dumps.
Alcohol… I Recommend Against
I know I know, this is the time of year to eat drink and be marry, right? Well, remember, If you did not already know, alcohol is a depressant and can increase your stinking thinking or down feelings. I get it, sometimes holidays are hard and you just want to forget, but alcohol is like putting your head in the sand, you will eventually sober up and you will be again left with all those unforgettable emotions and memories. A good time to seek out counseling if you are in this camp - AA would be good too.
Learning to Forgive
Again, I know, it is not always that easy. This is another area in the field of psychology that researchers are digging into, especially with couples. Forgiving ones self is just as important as forgiving another. Dead or alive forgiveness is still valid and can be one of the most freeing activities… over time. There are a lot of great books out there, just do a search on amazon and you will find more than you can shake a stick at. Remember, forgiveness is not a one time thing, and it may require multiple attempts over a time that I can not define.
The issue of faith, for many, this can be a straining topic full of conflicting memories, ideas and beliefs. But my personal experience, as I have leaned into my faith, has been one of hope, healing, and guidance. I have personally worked through many of the above steps, and honestly seeking God, for me, has made it easier to fall down, stumble through, and find healing. I have not arrived by any stretch the imagination, but I am learning to have grace for my self on this every changing voyage of life. “Faith from a Positive Psychology Perspective” by Miller-Perrin and Mancuso is a great text if you have interest in digging deeper into the analysis and benefits of faith in a variety of areas: Positive Emotions, Behaviors, Cognition, Relationships, Community, and Overall Positive Human Functioning.
Like anything worth having in life it takes a little grit, effort and time - coping during the holidays or otherwise is no different. So give it a solid go, it’s worth it to have less depression and good vibes.
Eddie Eccker, MS, LMFT