By Margie Nichols, Ph.D.
For many people, ‘The Holidays’ –roughly the period starting with Thanksgiving, going through the first days of the New Year – are everything our idealized vision of them contains: warmth, love, security, happiness, the joy of being around family, friends, loved ones.
But for many people – sometimes I think the majority of us – ‘The Holidays’ is a bittersweet time delivering as much pain as joy. Some of us are in difficult straits in our lives. We may be alone, stressed, in economic, health, or relationship crisis. This time of year may feel like nothing more than another stress. For some, these months conjure up memories of difficult childhoods, while others are overwhelmed with grief for those they have lost.
If you count yourself as one of the above, here’s a brief survival guide to make your holidays as bright as possible:
1) Make as few commitments as possible; balance your responsibilities to others with your responsibility to yourself. Take it slow, if you can. Leave room to opt out of some of the seasonal merry-go-round. You don’t need to go to every event you’ve been invited to.
2) On the other hand – if you are TOO much alone – make sure to schedule some time to be with other people. Even if you are stuck in a strange city by yourself on a holiday, you can volunteer at a soup kitchen and share in the camaraderie of giving. Go to church, temple, a twelve-step meeting, wherever people meet to share fellowship. You don’t have to believe in God- but believe in the spirit of human connection and the power of community, even if yours feels lacking at the moment.
3) Be gentle with yourself, and allow yourself to avoid some situations you know will be ‘triggers’ for negative feelings.
4) But at the same time, acknowledge that you may ‘break down’ at some point, and if you need to – cry, huddle up in a ball, beat a pillow in rage, or just totally withdraw. It can be a burden to pretend you feel happy when you are really blue. Sometimes you just need to let it all hang out.
5) There are two things that science has shown us work as well as antidepressants at beating the ‘winter blues,’ or any blues for that matter: bright light therapy (google it) and aerobic exercise. If you can’t buy a ‘bright light’ for a couple of hundred bucks, get outside in the light/sunshine as much as possible. And walking makes a great aerobic activity, so you can kill two birds with one stone.
6) Practice gratitude. Even an activity as simple as writing down 5 things a week that you feel grateful for has been shown to make people happier, more peaceful – and even to sleep better.
7) Give it away. We can all give SOMETHING to others, even if all we do is smile at our bus driver and wish her a good day. Especially if you live in the NYC Metro area, simple human kindnesses can be met with startled appreciation and joy. And it’s hard to look at someone you have just made happy and not feel a little better yourself.
And finally, remember – this too shall pass. In a few short weeks, you’ll be in a fresh new year, with the days growing imperceptibly longer and lighter, and you will have survived ‘The Holidays’ again.