There’s a scene in Charles Schulz’s iconic holiday classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, in which Charlie laments to Linus “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Snowflakes fall softly around them as other Peanuts characters glide across a frozen pond dotted by perfectly shaped pine trees. The idyllic backdrop is at odds with Charlie’s inner emotional state; he feels increasingly isolated from his peers, and though he senses that he’s “supposed” to feel holiday cheer, he doesn’t.
Charlie’s not alone.
For many, the holidays offer a welcome break from work, connection with loved ones and an opportunity for religious and spiritual observances that infuse the holidays with meaning. Often, people greet them with excitement and joy, in part because they offer a chance to gather with family in a way that may happen only once a year.
However, for several of us, the holidays summon feelings of stress, irritability, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. A 2014 poll conducted by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that the majority of people feel more anxious or depressed at the holidays. Likewise, data compiled by mental health app Larkr suggests that 45% of Americans dread the holidays and 38% consider it the most stressful time of the year. This stress can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms—30% of Larkr’s respondents reported drinking to cope with holiday stress, and more than 50% said that they eat in response to unwelcome feelings.
The holiday season can be a particularly tough time for those going through grief, loss, or estrangement from loved ones. More than perhaps any other time of year, winter media messaging is chock full of images that promote the concept of home and family as loving, supportive and safe. However, in families with histories of abuse, neglect, addiction, mental illness and chronic conflict, the prospect of holiday gatherings may feel vastly different. Further, for those who’ve recently lost a loved one, observing the holidays without them can be deeply upsetting.
If you’re noticing a shift in your mood as the holidays approach, pay attention and consider how to maximize your sense of peace and well-being while minimizing sources of distress. Here are some ideas to make the time of year easier for you:
- Celebrate the holidays on your own terms: Pressure from family, friends and cultural convention may implore you to a level of engagement and/or commitment that exceeds both your capacity and your comfort level. Resist the urge to give in. Honor your limitations and respond accordingly, stretching when you can and stepping back when it’s too much. Yes, your child will survive without the $500 scooter even though all his friends have one. Likewise, even if your sister insists that you should stay on an inflatable mattress in your 3-year-old niece’s room, you’re not a bad sibling for opting into a hotel room nearby.
- Be clear about your boundaries: Families are infamous for pushing their limits. Be clear with your family about what you will and won’t do during the holidays, and about what you need to feel safe in the environment. If Uncle Bob says something sexist to you, you’re within your rights to tell him you won’t tolerate it and walk away.
- Opt out if you need to: Sometimes, we go along with activities out of a sense of obligation or a desire to appear easygoing or congenial. That said, feeling comfortable saying “no” is an important part of self-care, especially during times as busy as the holidays. Does the thought of attending another holiday party fill you with dread rather than excitement? Have you been asked to bring one too many dishes to the family dinner? Know that you are not a bad person for saying no. You’re taking care of yourself, thereby ensuring a happier and healthier holiday for all involved.
- Stick with your routines: It’s tempting to use the holidays as an excuse to skip healthy routines like exercising or getting eight hours of sleep, but this can exacerbate our stress and make the season less pleasant. A morning walk or jog, daily yoga practice, journaling, eating well, and getting enough sleep can go a long way toward maintaining a sense of being wellness during the holidays.
- Pay attention to your body: The sensations we experience in our body carry a wealth of information. That pit in the stomach, lump in your throat, fluttering in your chest—these are all signs that your nervous system is on alert. Maybe you’re not quite sure what your body is trying to say, but paying attention can often lead you to insights about your needs. If something feels “off,” give the sensation some attention. What might your body be telling you?
- Counseling can help: The holidays have a funny way of calling attention to stressors, relationships, or losses we’re struggling with. If this is the case, consider meeting with a therapist to discuss how life can be different. A good therapist can help you gain insight into the behaviors, thoughts and emotions that keep you from living well and achieving your goals, whether it’s learning to manage your anxiety, feel less sad all the time, leaving a stagnant work situation, or working through trauma.
The Viva Center offers prospective clients a free, in-person consultation so we can learn more about you and how you’d like things to change. In addition, you can find free mental health resources at The Resilient Brain Project that can benefit you at any time of year. You can also contact me via email at email@example.com.
At the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown ultimately finds a way to celebrate the holiday in a manner that honors his feelings and holds meaning for him. May the same be true for you. Happy Holidays.
Regina Tosca, LICSW, is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including loss of companion animals, as well as those who experience grief and trauma from their work in animal welfare.