The holidays are fast upon us. That feels wild to write, as the past year and a half have been such a time-warp. I don’t know about you, but I am still shocked that it is the year 2021, much less the end of 2021. As with every year, but maybe more so this year, the holidays can bring much anticipation, and often times, accompanying anxiety and stress.
I don’t want to generalize the winter holidays, and certainly don’t want to speak on behalf of all holidays and their practitioners, so I will reflect on the holidays that I was raised celebrating, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whether you celebrate these holidays or not, you have certainly been impacted by them, if not more than the calendar revolving around these two holidays, and family celebrations often falling during these times.
The intention of the holidays
The holiday season, as much as I can understand, was intended to be a time of reflection, gratitude, a time to take stock of the past year, to make plans for the new year, and to celebrate those that we have lost and who have sacrificed themselves for the greater good. I also believe it was intended to be a time of rest, following the annual harvest during our agricultural past, and a time to “wash away” the past year, ushering in a new beginning.
What makes the Holidays so stressful?
For many of you, by the time Thanksgiving arrives, you are really just happy to have a break. Just happy to have four days to rest and relax, reconnect with friends and family, and be grateful for what you have. Everyone will be in a good mood, you will eat delicious food, you will see people you haven’t seen for a long time. But as many of you have experienced, obligations, travel, family dynamics and expectations make the holidays much more complicated.
Remember that time we talked about this being a time to rest and relax, and be grateful? Well, I forgot to mention that you have 25 people coming to your home on Thursday, you will be traveling to see your partner’s family on Friday. They live 3 hours away, but it’s no big deal. An easy day trip, they say. Saturday your friends are in town for the only time this year, and they are dying to see you. And Sunday, well, does it even matter at this point? You’re beat, your exhaustion has only furthered, and your only hope is to make it to the “Christmas” break…. before you break.
While the intention of the holidays is to bring us together, and while modern travel has made this logistically possible, from an emotional standpoint, it has become just another obstacle for you to navigate and another stressor to manage. And while you certainly want to see your friends and family, the obligatory nature of these meetings at times can leave you feeling anxious and at times just wanting to withdraw and isolate.
One of the beauties of the holidays is that they serve as markers for the year, a time to look forward to, a time to celebrate, and a time to reflect on the past year, and move forward. But for many, these markers coincide with anniversaries of great loss. Maybe you have had a loved one pass away during this time, or maybe you only were able to see this loved one during the holiday season.
Holiday associated trauma
Many people have also experienced trauma during this time or year, or have experienced trauma within the context of family gatherings. When you have experienced tragedy and loss, it can become easy to get “stuck” within these emotions, and the holidays only heighten this, rather than serving as a ritual to break free and move forward. During a time of overwhelming stimulation and expectation, this can feel more dreadful than hopeful.
When I first started this blog, I intended to write about those of you who would be celebrating these holidays for the first time without someone. Whether divorce, break-up, deaths, moving or whatever reason, spending a holiday for the first time without a loved one can bring symptoms of depression rather than glee, sadness rather than joy. Navigating how, and with whom, you will spend your time is no longer automatic, and requires much more intention.
On the other side of the continuum, many of you may be looking forward to your first holiday with a new romantic partner, visiting their families and friends for the first time. Or maybe this is the first year with a baby, and you have to decide if you are going to spend your holidays with your “new” family or if you remain obligated to old traditions. Possibly, this is the first year in a new town or city, a new home, surrounded by strangers, longing to be with family. And this year, for many of you, it will be the first holiday gathering since the pandemic began.
Effects of the Pandemic on the Holidays
Last, but certainly not least, the pandemic has served as our underlayment for everything that we have experienced over the past 20 months. It has bred stress, anxiety and mistrust. It has held many of you in place, unable to move forward, unable to make sense of what has happened. I just say this out loud, because while it is so obvious the stress this time has caused, I still find so many clients who forget that they are not only experiencing crisis in their personal lives, but also experiencing a personal crisis within the backdrop of a global crisis.
Make a plan! Things you can do to manage your stress during the holidays:
Be intentional as you enter the holiday season. Consider how you and your family are doing, and how the holidays may trigger negative feelings.
Talk about these concerns with loved ones, friends, maybe even your therapist if you have one?
Check in with your partner, children, family, as they may also be experiencing some of the same feelings you are having.
If you are traveling and have a tight itinerary, review it and identify when you may need to take time to decompress or re-energize.
If you have an anniversary of a loss, spend some time reflecting on that loss and how you may be able to transform it into hope. Visiting a grave site, holding a memorial or vigil, or sharing stories of loved ones of the past can help you discharge some of the sadness to wash away and make the grief more manageable.
If you have trauma associated with the holidays, be mindful of your needs and set boundaries around what you are willing, and able, to tolerate. Prioritize your well-being over obligations, as you may only activate patterns of past behavior by “going along” with expectations.
If this is a holiday first, try to manage your expectations. If this is a first without someone, be thoughtful about who you want to spend your time with.
Take breaks from the overstimulation. Go for a walk, exercise, do yoga or meditation, or whatever helps you relax and soothe yourself. Take these breaks often and reflect on how you are feeling.
Don’t drink, smoke, talk politics and religion, or gorge yourself. Haha, yeah right, you say? We all know that these are unhealthy habits, and many of us will indulge more than usual over the holidays, nonetheless. It may be a way to manage the stress or to “unwind”. Being mindful of our body’s needs, and just being thoughtful will likely lead to more moderation in our choices.
Have a plan!. If nothing else, take some time now to reflect on how you would like your holidays to look like, who you need for support or company, any issues or conflicts that may come up, and be intentional about what you chose to do and with whom you chose to be.
Being intentional at any time in your life is beneficial. Being aware of your needs and the needs of others in your life will help you relate to others in a way that is mutually beneficial and supportive. When your interpersonal relationships are strong, you are more able to communicate your needs and boundaries, listen to others’ needs and perspectives, and you can all be more intentional in the way you choose to spend your time. During the holidays, when emotions can be easily stirred, this will be even more critical, and likewise, beneficial.
May your holidays be filled with intentional joy and happiness!
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Here at Catalyss Counseling, we want to meet all of your counseling needs in the Denver area. Our supportive therapists provide depression counseling, therapy for caregiver stress, grief and loss therapy, stress management counseling and more. We also have specialists in trauma and PTSD, women's issues, pregnancy and postpartum depression or anxiety, pregnancy loss and miscarriage, and birth trauma. For therapists, we can also provide clinical supervision! We look forward to connecting with you to help support your journey today.
Chris Campassi is a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, and blogger. Chris helps adults in the areas of depression, anxiety, severe and persistent mental illnesses, grief and loss, emergency evaluations and interventions, assessment, and diagnosing. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.