How to Survive the Holidays: Tips from 9 Therapists
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…It’s the hap-happiest season of —” Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on. This isn’t THAT kind of blog post.
We have enough of that toxic holiday cheer going around. We need to know how to get through the dreadful and sad moments surrounding this time of year. Here are tips from 9 different therapists on how to survive the holidays this year.
The heaviness surrounding this time of year is all too clear to me as I sit with my clients. For some of us, the heaviness stems from internal and external expectations and obligations; and for others, the heaviness has to do more with the isolation and grief they’re feeling. For a lot of us we’re feeling all of these things and so much more. It struck me recently that as millions of people begin struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, we are being bombarded with messages that we should be feeling gratitude, joy and motivation. Oh, the irony.
So what is a therapist to do but gather the wonderful wisdom of her colleagues to help encourage anyone who is feeling disconnected and NOT full of celebratory cheer.
We hear you. We see you. You are not alone. This blog post is for you.
How to Survive the Holidays: Normalize and Set Boundaries
“If you are on social media over the holidays, keep in mind that you are not alone even if it seems that way. You will likely see pictures of others with their loved ones, but know that your experience of perhaps feeling alone or not being surrounded by people who understand or validate you is an experience shared by many – but one we often don’t post or talk about. It can be helpful to remind ourselves that social media is not always an accurate representation. It is also important to validate and normalize any feelings of loss/grief and sadness. This is a time when many of us feel a societal pressure to be happy, but many of us do not for many reasons such as memories of loss, trauma, or reminders of the lack of support or connection in our lives.
If you are spending the holidays with others who do not make you feel safe, respected, seen or heard, you are allowed to set boundaries and also have an escape plan if needed. Your right to feel safe does not require the permission or validation of others. I often suggest that clients rehearse boundary-setting responses if needed, or plan coping skills and private spaces (such as bathrooms, cars) you can use if you need to ground yourself.”
Patricia Colli, LCSW
“If you are experiencing sadness, grief, or depression, acknowledge your feelings. If you are having anniversary reactions, which are normal reminders of things that have happened in the past during this time of year, acknowledge them. Take the time to grieve and talk to others who may be able to relate. Don’t put pressure on yourself to have only positive feelings, just because it is the holiday time of year. Also, reach out to others in your support system. Volunteering during this time of year can also be a great way to give back and connect with others.”
Robin Axelrod Sabag, LCSW, MFT
How to Survive the Holidays: Focus on Yourself
“The holidays are often associated with family, friends, and togetherness. We’re conditioned to think about giving and receiving gifts and large dinner gatherings when we think about how to celebrate the holidays. As someone who’s experienced loss and family strain, I’ve changed the way I experience and celebrate the holidays. Instead of thinking about others, I think about myself. How can I take care of myself during the holiday season? What needs can I meet and nurture? How can I celebrate myself? I buy and eat my favorite foods, buy myself little gifts, and decorate my house in a way that makes my space feel cozy and nurturing.”
Shaylyn Forte, LPC
How to Survive the Holidays when Single
“The “most wonderful time of the year” can also feel like the most lonely time of the year for those of us who are single. The holiday season puts a lot of pressure on us—pressure to be festive, pressure to spend money, pressure to overeat or drink to excess. Give yourself permission to spend this time in a non-traditional way, if that’s more aligned with your life right now. It’s okay to opt out of gatherings or social settings that feel obligatory instead of enjoyable. And remember that this is a finite period of time—we’re back to homeostasis in just a few weeks!”
Julie Simonson, LCSW
Survive the Holidays through Your Senses
“Here’s a simple practice to bring your nervous system back into the sweet spot of your most capable self this holiday. Smell something you love. Thanks to a fascinating part of the brain called the olfactory bulb — a tiny almond-shaped part of the brain that works with the amygdala to process smells and relate them to your emotions. Smelling something you love triggers a sense of joy and calm.
- Get something you love the smell of. I’m a big fan of Lavender essential oil.
- Hold it about 2 inches below your nose.
- Take a slow and smooth deep breath in to the count of 6 and exhale to the count of 8
- Repeat 3 times.
- Have the intention of sending the smell into every cell in your body.
Lastly, notice how you feel before and after. You can practice with different smells to see what works best.”
Maureen Clancy, LCSW
How to Survive the Holidays: Simplify and Form New Traditions
“Discover what will make your holiday meaningful this year. This may mean stepping back from the commercialism, the traditional holiday activities and other “shoulds” that you have gathered through the years and find out what your heart is calling for. Keep gifts simple. For example: an unhurried phone call to a friend or family member, a homemade casserole or soup to freeze or use for dinner, a book you’ve read or a piece of jewelry that you’re ready to pass on to its next home, for instance. Through the years, I’ve done a good amount of thrift gifting – shopping at thrift shops – which means I’ve saved something from the landfill, found a unique gift that is also a bargain and supported a good cause.
Rest, relax, nap, sleep. Also,notice if there’s a project that you’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t had time – refinishing a small piece of furniture, reorganizing your bookshelf, cleaning out a closet. Feel the satisfaction of completing the task. Sing, hum, dance, clap.”
Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP
Suriving the Holidays when you are in Grief
“Undoubtedly, the holidays can be challenging, particularly for those grieving and/or feeling alone. Repurposing the old English rhyme ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ these tips may help the holidays remain meaningful during difficult times.
Old: Old harkens images of traditions passed down through generations – ornaments, meals, rituals, etc. Make time to honor traditions that bring joy and help you feel close to loved ones. Give yourself permission to pause from traditions that create stress or are too painful this year. New: Consider starting a new tradition or volunteering your time in the community. A new tradition may provide novelty; a new perspective. Volunteering often promotes a deep sense of meaning and satisfaction by helping others and being part of a bigger whole.
Borrowing can include tangible things like recipes or intangible things like attitudes. A neighbor’s famous sweet potato recipe might shift the dynamics at your dinner table. A resilient friend might provide support simply by thinking about how that person faces adversity. You might even consider borrowing or adopting a local community for companionship – a religiously affiliated group, a local nursing home or senior center, or your local library. Lastly, Blue: Since the holidays can be unusually busy and filled with an array of emotions, dedicate some time daily to the outdoors and be present in nature. Whenever you can, be still, take note of the blue sky, the quiet of trees in winter, feel the crisp air, allow yourself to feel your feelings, and take deep breaths.”
Diane Webber, LPC
Surviving the holiday through awareness and choice
“For many, the holidays can feel anticlimactic and sometimes even painful, and this is in stark contrast to what the feverishly happy scenes in every TV commercial bombarding us since Halloween are suggesting they “should” be. If you are among the many people who, for whatever reason, are having a less-than-holly-jolly holiday season, know that you aren’t alone! Give yourself permission to feel whatever you need to feel, whether that be sadness, grief, anger, worry or joy. Most importantly, remember that you have the power to choose for yourself.
Become aware of the things that wear you down, create stress and/or resentment, and do what is in your power to reduce it. Try approaching stressful situations with a new intention. Visualize how you will respond differently ahead of time. A challenge doesn’t have to be a stressor if you have set your intention beforehand.
If these challenges involve interaction with difficult family members, instead of trying to change them or worrying about improving the relationship, focus on setting your intention for a successful interaction with them – whatever that means to you. And know your limits. Only you know how much you can comfortably do while staying true to yourself. Finally, it’s OK to grieve the family you wish you had, especially during the holidays. Focus on building meaningful connections with chosen family who will accept and cherish your most authentic self.”
Christie Pearl, LMHC, LPC
I wholeheartedly agree with all the wise and validating words above. I’m finding myself taking a deeper breath in and feeling empowered to do what is right for me this year. I hope you feel that too.
In my work with clients who have had difficult pasts, it can feel especially daunting to trust other people. If that’s where you’re at right now, that’s okay. You’re not alone. Although this holiday may not involve social gatherings, it can involve connection. Connection can happen with nature, pets, plants, different parts of our self, ancestors, and imaginal figures that feel safe and nourishing to your nervous system.
My intention with this blog post is to encourage you and share practical tips for this holiday season. If you’re finding that you might need more support, reach out to me or any of the other therapists who contributed. Their website will tell you where they are licensed to see individuals. We hear you. We see you. You are not alone.
About the Author:
Angela is a Certified EMDR Therapist who loves working with adults who want to clear any unfinished business with their childhood trauma. She is licensed to see individuals in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. She loves collaborating with other therapists in blog posts AND helping clients move toward wholeness through adjunct EMDR intensives.
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