Holiday Cheer? Coping with Stress and Sadness this Time of Year

There is an old saying that goes something like this, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” No time of year is that more true, than at the holidays.

Everything in the public environment, in the media and in our own history can conspire to create unrealistic and idealistic expectations for the holidays that few of us can possibly live up to. The specter of the perfect family gathered around the perfect tree or holiday table is often in stark contrast with the reality of our own lives where relatives may be absent or dysfunctional. Beautifully wrapped gifts in abundance, Christmas cookies baked with compliant and rosy-cheeked children and sleigh rides through the snow are often either financially or practically impossible.

Instead, the reality is often stress about money, fears about interactions with relatives, melancholy about holidays past when childhood excitement may have made this time of year a joyful anticipation, and sadness when we deeply miss those who are gone from our lives. Wrapping this all up in a neat package of despair can be feelings of failure, and envy towards those who seem to have all these things.

We therapists know that depression and suicidality peaks at this time of year. Not only is it dark and cold outside (which can affect many who are sensitive to these things) but the weight of unmet expectations for ourselves and others, the sadness that arrives when we compare our lives to the lives of our neighbors and friends and characters on TV, all work against us unless we can take hold of our own mind and direct our thoughts and actions more effectively.

But how, in the midst of the holiday frenzy can we possibly do that? Here are some suggestions that might help:

Take a step back. Just because you have always had a big Christmas dinner or purchased presents for everyone in your extended family does not mean you must continue to do so. Examine the traditions you have cultivated and ask yourself honestly if they still fit for you. Are you still able to participate with joy? If so, continue on with abandon. If not, consider scaling back or ending traditions that no longer fit for you, whether due to a change in circumstances such as reduced finances, or a change in values as when purchasing yet more toys or unneeded objects seems like excess. You are allowed to change how you feel and what you do.

Ask for help. Be willing to ask for and accept help with planning and executing holiday celebrations. Many of us feel we must do everything ourselves and make the holiday perfect for our loved ones. Not only is this impossible it is also a recipe for burn out and resentment.

Connect with your reason for the season. Whether you are a religious person or not, re-engaging the meaning holiday celebrations hold for you can create a deeper experience with family and friends. Why do you bother with it all? If there are values at the core of the celebrations for you, how do they play a part in what and how you celebrate? What would it look like to be more aligned with those values?

Stop comparing your insides with other’s outsides. When we drive past a beautiful home, lit with Christmas lights, or see Facebook posts of smiling families gathered around a sparkling tree, it can be understandable to think these people’s lives must be filled with ease. However, what we present to the world through those curated avenues is rarely the whole story. Everyone experiences loss, falls short of their ideals and struggles to make meaning out of difficult situations, which befall us all.

Looking into someone’s life through a small window such as Facebook, we see only the surface of things and cannot know what challenges and pain those people are facing. You know your own story intimately, your self-doubt, self-consciousness, failures, struggles, sadness, illness, family problems. Rest assured that most people have their share of similar issues.

Be here now. Cultivating mindfulness can make any experience easier to both tolerate and/or enjoy. Mindfulness can help us endure anxiety and the pangs of loss. When we bring ourselves into the present moment we let go of past and future and focus our attention on just this moment. What is happening both inside and outside of us is what matters and when we can be in this present place we get to truly be in our lives and with those we care about. Practicing mindfulness is a skill and much of it involves noticing that we have gone into the future or the past and gently bringing ourselves back again and again. Try it. It just may be the best gift you could give yourself.

Let go of expectation. More joy and less misery is possible when we accept what is. It might mean accepting (though not liking) difficult things. Sages throughout the ages have reminded us that life is indeed filled with pain, but suffering is a product of ordinary pain plus resistance to that aspect of life. It is this denial and rejection of a basic element of the human experience (pain and loss) that creates misery. Work towards making peace with what is. This can be a process that lasts a life time, but the holidays and all your days will fall upon you more gently if you can begin.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Categories

  • Archives