5 Tips to Help Beat Holiday Sadness & Stress: A Psychologist Offers Creative & Candid Advice by Dr. Bethany Cook Clinical Psychologist
Many individuals report a marked increase in stress around the holidays. This stress can be about anything from money, what holiday gifts to buy, to Christmas dinner, and how do you tell your partner you don’t want to see their family this year?
Some people also experience “holiday sadness.” This occurs when you are unable to go about your “typical” holiday activities (or even your activities of daily living) due to overwhelming feelings such as sadness, anxiety, fear, frustration, etc., that may arise, and which are directly related to the time of year when holidays are being celebrated.
The holidays have a lot of focus on family, friends, fun and festivities and, for many who don’t get invited or included in holiday cheer, or those who don’t have a “special” someone, and those who have lost someone, this can be a time of increased feelings of isolation, rejection and even abandonment.
Holiday sadness and stress is caused by a variety of factors and can be heightened during the holidays by external triggers. The public is bombarded with advertising campaigns insinuating “essential items” that ensure happiness and fulfillment during the holidays, and overwhelmed with commercials that depict great family reunions, celebrations, and moments of forgiveness and re-connection. Issues surrounding the holidays are multifaceted and too complex to be truly explained in a 30-second commercial meant to emotionally manipulate people into buying a product.
Here is some candid advice on how to beat holiday sadness and manage your stress:
1. Narrative Therapy & Journaling
Rewrite the story and change whatever you want. You know, the story where you end up holding the short end of the stick? What would it have been like if things hadn’t ended the way they did? How would your feelings towards the situation change if the ending did? Would you have done things differently moving forward? If you had a magic wand and could change anything, what would you change and why? Write your new story with the plot twist you need to happen. Keep it, burn it or send it to someone, being mindful they may not welcome this version. It doesn't matter, of course. This rewrite is for you to take back control and try to move forward with doing and living the way you want, and not how emotions dictate.
2. Alternative Holiday
Decide to do things differently this year. Maybe for Christmas you celebrate Halloween. It doesn’t even need to be that drastic. If you usually do a stiff family affair for Christmas, do silly stuff this year. If Christmas is always “traditional,” mix it up by doing a “Favorite Christmas Movie Remix” where you do some of the things they do in the show, within reason of course.
For example, last year was a difficult one during the COVID pandemic for my family, so we added a new tradition to our holiday and hit a piñata filled with candy on Christmas day. Great fun!
3. Play the Marketing Game
We all love when “the goodie double-backed and outsmarted the baddie” type of scenario, right? Well, in this one you’re the goodie and advertisers are the baddie. When you see something that triggers you emotionally (a picture, a commercial, whatever) stop and do the list below. This will bring your brain back from the “emotional center” to the “frontal lobes,” which house your executive functions of logic, reason, understanding, etc. This also challenges some of your irrational thoughts about “shoulds” and “musts” (these are called cognitive distortions) and rewires your brain to see more quickly the “message behind the emotion” which helps reduce your response to the emotional trigger.
Here are 10 steps to help you see behind the curtain:
1. What is brand X trying to sell? (razor, coffee, resort package)
2. What are they using to sell it? (sex, women, drama, humor)
3. What emotion or feeling are they triggering in me? (sadness, anger, fear)
4. Who is their intended audience? (kids, families, moms, dad, singles)
5. When I read the above answers is the answer clear as to why I got emotionally involved?
If “yes” go to 9. If “no” continue.
6. What does X remind me of? (childhood memory, sensation in your body, a person)
7. Does this experience reflect my actual circumstances at this moment? (challenging irrational beliefs)
8. When you think about your initial emotional response and the emotional response you feel now toward this incident has it shifted? How?
9. Was this exercise helpful? Should you do the steps again? Or do you feel less “worried?"
4. Get Cooking
Cooking is my “go to” mindfulness activity. It allows me to “kill a few birds with one stone.” Not only do I get to do something that I enjoy, but it also calms me down. Cooking forces me to be in the “moment.” And if you’re feeling alone for the holidays, my guess is you're not the only one. So, take some time and make some meals or treats to offer to neighbors, family, friends or work colleagues. Maybe you could donate your time at a shelter during the holidays. Be around people who appreciate your efforts. My family and I bake and cook an awful lot during the holidays, and we love sharing our treats with our family, friends and neighbors in Chicago. Plus, when you share the goodies, it means you can try more new recipes without needing to purchase a new wardrobe.
5. Turn Up the (Different) Music
Music has been shown to be linked to memories, and the holidays repeat songs for decades, allowing associations to come around at least once a year and during an already stressful time. So, stop listening to songs that are familiar. Play a completely different genre, or download songs that have been remixed, so you can rewire those neural pathways to NOT go down “memory lane” as you create and build new memories with different music.
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