The holidays are a time for celebration and happy gatherings with family and friends. Some people, however, find that celebrating the holidays in the traditional sense brings anything but peace and joy. Rather than looking forward to it, this time of year is something they just want to get through and put behind them.
The holiday season may be filled with stress and anxiety for a number of reasons:
- The pressure to over-commit both time and money.
- Other people’s desires that take center stage and ignore yours.
- Forced togetherness with family members you don’t get along with, or worse, who trigger past trauma.
- The expectation to be around people when you’d rather be alone, or being alone when you’d like to be with others.
- The need to appear happy when you aren’t.
- The effort it takes to please others by pretending to be someone you’re not.
- The pressure you put on yourself because you’re not happy or you feel as though you don’t fit in.
Many people find joy in the holiday traditions from their childhood, which they recreate for their own families. However, the holidays may not conjure warm memories if, for example, your upbringing involved toxic relationships, fallout from a bitter divorce or other estrangements, substance abuse, neglect, or trauma such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Perhaps when you were growing up your family celebrated in a way that didn’t resonate with you (they were strictly religious and you wanted to have more fun or they made it all about presents and appearances and you wanted to be more spiritual). As an adult, you may find it challenging to create the festive season on your own terms, but it can be done.
There is no single right way to celebrate.
Even if full-on happiness is too tall an order, you can try for whatever brings you peace. Writer Katrina Woznicki and her husband have little extended family and none that they care to spend time with during the holidays. Woznicki’s parents and brother struggle with mental illness, and “a long history of illness, abuse, trauma and anger,” she writes in a New York Times article. Her husband is an only child whose parents are deceased and he has no other relatives nearby. Holidays are spent with the two of them and their 12-year-old daughter, who is aware that their experience does not match those of her friends or what she sees on television – celebrations with lots of family.
“Over the years, I’ve tried to create different Christmas memories,” Woznicki writes. Those memories include traveling to fun and interesting destinations and sometimes participating in the traditions of other cultures. “Our Christmases may appear nomadic and lacking in tradition, but my hope is to teach our daughter that Christmas or any holiday doesn’t need to fit a conventional mold… Sometimes you have to forge your own circle or find other circles with which to share the joy and compliments of the holiday season, and that’s okay.” (Woznicki, 2016)
Holiday sadness and loneliness
Holiday sadness can also come from an awareness of what is missing. “This time of year we remember people we’ve lost, especially the older we get. We think about the people we love who live far away,” writes Susie Moore, life coach columnist for the website Greatist.com. “Perhaps we rue what we cannot afford to do or what we can’t afford to give to others. We might think back on the entire year and feel we have not achieved what we’ve wanted to. It’s melancholic just acknowledging these truths…” (Moore, 2015)
Moore offers ways to help overcome your sadness. Here are a few she suggests:
- Do something nice for someone else.
The holiday season offers many opportunities to help others, from volunteering at a local homeless shelter, to performing random acts of kindness, to writing a thank you note to someone who’s helped you in the past year.
- Treat yourself.
It doesn’t have to be extravagant, and certainly not more than you can afford, but a gift to yourself can be just what you need. “Treating yourself is an important act of self-care,” Moore writes.
- Focus on what’s going right.
“No matter how troubled your year has been, there is always light when you look for it,” says Moore.
Holiday stress and anxiety
If avoiding your family or others you find challenging during the holidays is not an option, you can still have some control over your experience. The American Psychological Association (APA) offers these strategies for coping with some of the holidays’ toughest challenges.
- For dealing with continuing family problems, be realistic. “If you have bad feelings about someone, try and avoid him or her and not make an issue of it but don’t pretend that all is well. This will enable you to feel true to yourself and less stressed out,” the APA suggests.
- For money concerns, know your spending limit. Resist the pressure to overspend. Doing so is stressful, and that stress continues during the year when you have to pay your bills. Showing love and caring is not about how much you spend. It truly is the thought that counts!
- For time commitments, learn to prioritize. Choose the invitations and activities that matter the most, and don’t stress over saying no to everything else. Over-commitment can be a struggle for couples that are pressured to spend time with both sets of in-laws, or have to travel long distances. Finding a balance that doesn’t leave you feeling worn out and resentful (such as choosing an alternate day to be with one family, or going to each one every other year, or simply choosing to stay home).
- For coping in general, trust your instincts. “Most people dread the holidays because their inner experience is so different from what is being hyped. You should trust your own instincts and don’t try to be what you’re not,” explains the APA. “Keep up your normal routine and know that this day will pass too.”
When the holiday blues continue beyond the holidays
The holidays can be a time that exacerbates deep feelings of sadness, stress, anxiety or trauma. If you need help during the holidays or even after the festivities are just a memory, there are many resources. Contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600 to schedule an appointment with a therapist.
If you or anyone else has considered self-harm, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1(800)273-8255
Survivors of sexual abuse can contact the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN): 1(800) 656-HOPE or www.RAINN.org/.
Survivors of domestic abuse can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800)799−7233.
Woznicki, K. (2016) The holidays aren’t a big, happy family celebration for everyone. And that’s okay. The Washington Post. Retrieved on December 20, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/13/the-holidays-arent-a-big-happy-family-celebration-for-everyone-and-thats-okay/?utm_term=.5aae290b55f9
Moore, S. (2015) How to Deal When the Holidays Aren’t Exactly Happy. Greatist.com. Retrieved on December 20, 2016, from https://greatist.com/grow/holiday-sadness
American Psychological Association (2016). More Coping with Holiday Stress Tips. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 20, 2016, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/more-coping-with-holiday-stress-tips/