How to Focus on What Matters During the Holidays (and Keep Yourself Feeling Merry).
Part 3 of 4 of the Holiday Stress Survival Guide
The holiday season is filled with so much extra stuff – packed schedules, gifts to buy, errands, food (more on that in Part 4), and people! You may feel over-“stuffed” yet still experience loneliness. Feeling sadness or struggling to enjoy the holiday season is a common experience. Many people find the holidays a stressful time of year. As mentioned, sometimes you may feel lonely (even in a room full of people), have a history of disappointing holiday memories, or have experienced a loss associated with the holiday season (such as the death of a loved one). It can feel like everyone around you is enjoying time with loved ones and the warmth of the season while you feel left out in the cold. If you find this a particularly difficult and lonesome time of year, take heart and read on for some ideas for finding comfort.
Research shows us that even in the direst situations (being held in a concentration camp, surviving 9/11, or losing a loved one) people who are able to make meaning have a better quality of life and report more happiness overall in the years following that event. I mention these heart-wrenching examples because when you are down in the dumps and someone tells you, “everything happens for a reason” or some other encouragement geared toward making meaning, it can often feel invalidating and infuriating. The skill of making meaning or purpose in the midst of a painful experience can get you through and help you thrive. Research with survivors of tragic historic events shows us this is true.
Here’s what meaning-making is not: Making meaning out of pain is not forcing a smile and pretending everything is okay. It is not people-pleasing and making everyone else happy and comfortable while you suffer inside. It is not telling yourself that this situation happened for a reason or you must have deserved it.
What making meaning does involve, is finding a way to derive some purpose, something you can gain, out of the suffering you are in. In other words, how can you play the terrible hand of cards you have been dealt in the most beneficial way possible? Here is an example: I know a woman who has struggled with infertility and it is not possible for her to have children. This is very painful for her and every time the holidays come around, she aches to have a family. Every ornament that is hung and tradition experienced reminds her that she will not be passing any of this on to her own children. She feels pain. Although at times, she may be angry and want to scream how unfair this is, what brings her the most peace is finding meaning through her own spiritual and meditative practices, which she believes she would not do if she had not been met with so much sadness about something she cannot fix. She views her situation as driving her closer to practicing her spiritual beliefs and, as a result, extending increased compassion toward others. This does not make the state of affairs or her pain go away. What this meaning-making practice does, is help her focus on her values and find something of worth in the midst of her circumstances. When she feels lonely, sad, hopeless, she turns to her spiritual practices and finds comfort. This is making meaning.
Meaning making is a skill taught in the Distress Tolerance module of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Distress Tolerance skills are designed for getting you through the moment when you cannot immediately solve the problem or source of your pain. At times, the holidays can be painful and because of the circumstances, we cannot completely change this. We feel pain, sadness, and loneliness. Making meaning can help us get through until, as with everything in life, this pain too shall pass. There will come a day that you smile and laugh and find pleasure. Remind yourself of this. Don’t let holiday loneliness get to you. Here are some tips to cope with Holiday Season sadness.
ENJOY JUST A MOMENT
Another DBT skill, this time from the Emotion Regulation module, is to engage in pleasant activities. The reasoning is that if you don’t have pleasant activities in your day, you cannot have a pleasant life. Sometimes, when you are very low, as you may feel during the holiday season, it feels like nothing gives you pleasure or joy. This is where you must get creative.
Instead of looking for bliss, try adjusting your expectations and finding one small thing that you can somewhat enjoy for a few seconds. Some examples are your first sip of coffee, those first few moments of getting into bed after a long day, taking a moment to inhale the delicious aroma of the food you are about to eat, or stopping to notice a beautiful flower. When times are rough and we cannot feel sustained happiness, it does not eliminate our need to be nourished with joy. When we start to notice the little things, even for a few seconds, we begin to build our emotional bank account with some pleasant experiences.
Think about having an empty bucket of loneliness or sadness. Every time you notice something even a little bit pleasant, like the moment you take off your shoes when arriving home, you are filling the bucket with a drop of pleasure. Of course, one drop does not make a big difference in a large, empty bucket. If you keep it up, drop by drop, over time, the bucket fills. Although it can feel like a slow process, every single time you turn your attention towards something even a little bit pleasant, you are a drop closer to filling that bucket. When you have accumulated many pleasant events, you will build the ability to feel more pleasure and happiness. Don’t force it. Just keep practicing and it will happen.
TAKE TIME TO REMEMBER
If your holiday season is a sad time because of loss and grief, you can make remembrance and the celebration of a loved one’s life a part of your holiday tradition. My grandmother used to make pies during the holidays. She would roll out the extra pie crust, spread it with butter, sugar, and cinnamon, and make special cookies for me to nibble while the pies baked. Now, whenever I make a pie, I use my grandmother’s fabulous pie crust recipe and say a little “thank you” to her for creating this memory for me. My husband now sometimes joins in, and instead of feeling sadness and lack, it has become a bonding experience that brings up nostalgia and gratitude. Rather than trying to push your pain aside or focus only on the positive, you may find a more authentic and touching experience when you take a few moments to remember those you have lost and commemorate this, even with a little “thank you.”
I hope that these strategies and activities make the holiday season a lot more enjoyable. If, however, your holiday blues are more severe or do not seem to reduce even after taking steps to help, then you may want to consider visiting a therapist. Therapists trained in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) can be particularly helpful in dealing with the realities of the holiday season and finding effective coping strategies. Get in contact with a therapist to find out how they can provide that extra support to help you get through the holiday season, and perhaps feel even better about it.
Happy Holidays! Please remember, life is too short just to survive. Use these practices to help you THRIVE!
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If you use any of the practices suggested, please feel free to share your experiences and send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. While Dr. Bando will not answer personally, your comments and feedback help inform future posts.