Navigating the Holidays When You Don’t Feel Joyous

The holiday season, often hailed as the “most wonderful time of the year,” can bring joy, warmth, and a sense of togetherness.  However, for many individuals, it also comes with unique challenges that can impact mental health.  These challenges can originate from the loss of loved ones, divorce, co-parenting, financial loss, or the sense of another year ending without meeting personal goals.   While everyone grieves these disappointments differently, check out the tips below to help prioritize your mental well-being.

Acknowledge Your Feelings:

It’s essential to recognize and accept your emotions, whether they are positive or negative.  The holidays may evoke a range of feelings from excitement and nostalgia to loneliness or sadness.  Embracing these emotions without judgment is the first step toward understanding and managing them.  It can be helpful to talk about these emotions with a friend or family member or journal.  If you try journaling, don’t worry about grammar, your handwriting, or even complete sentences.  Just write and get it all out – no one is reading it for a grade!  If you are more creative, draw, paint, or create a collage that represents all those BIG emotions!

Set Realistic Expectations:

The pressure to create picture-perfect holiday moments can be overwhelming.  Instead of striving for perfection, set realistic expectations for yourself.  Remember that it’s okay if everything doesn’t go according to plan.  Focus on the meaningful moments rather than chasing an idealized version of the holidays.  When you start feeling this pressure, take a moment to consider where it is coming from:  What were you just doing?  Were you scrolling social media on your phone?  Socializing with family, friends or coworkers?  Watching TV?  Hallmark movies (where there is always a happy ending)? Take note of the activity preceding the feeling and find realistic ways to minimize the activity.

Create Boundaries:

Establishing boundaries is crucial, especially during the holiday season. It’s okay to say no to social engagements or additional responsibilities if they contribute to stress. Prioritize self-care by setting aside time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation.  It’s also okay to have a budget and stick to it. Make a list of everyone you believe you must purchase a gift for and then consider how often you see them or if there is something you can do for them that would be more helpful than another trinket gift.  If you have older children, give them a budget for their Christmas list and ask them to mark those items most important to them.  Being financially responsible now, we will minimize stress now and ward off the delayed stress many feel post-holiday season.  Return to the magic of the holidays with simple gifts and the greatest one of all – time spent together enjoying hot cocoa in the car while singing carols and enjoying holiday displays in your neighborhood or whatever your favorite holiday tradition was as a child!

Stay Connected:

While some individuals may find comfort in solitude, staying connected with loved ones can be a powerful antidote to holiday blues.  Reach out to friends or family  members for support even if it’s just a brief conversation.  Share your feelings and let others know how they can help.

Note:  Sometimes it can be difficult to open up to those we see every day or know well; we are afraid for them to see us in a different light.  If this is your situation, please know there are various hotlines you can call for assistance.  Most states have hotlines that can be found with a quick google search.  If you live in New Jersey, some hotlines are listed below:

Therapists and counselors can provide valuable guidance and support tailored to your specific needs.  Check with your insurance provider for a list of licensed mental health professionals who can assist you.

Get Physical:

Physical movement, whether it’s through exercise, sports, or even activities like walking or dancing, has profound effects on mental health. Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, often referred to as “feel-good” hormones. Endorphins act as natural painkillers and mood elevators, creating a sense of well-being and reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety that can be related to grief.  It’s hard to stick to a routine when you are not feeling your best but aiming to go no more than 48 hours without exercise is a good start.  Consider it a way to jump start those New Year’s Resolutions!

Practice Mindfulness and Self-Compassion:

Mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing or meditation can be valuable tools for managing stress.  There are hundreds of free videos online if you do not know where to begin.  Additionally, practice self-compassion by treating yourself with the same kindness you would offer to a friend facing similar struggles.  Remember that it’s okay not to be okay.

Create New Traditions:

If traditional holiday activities contribute to stress, consider creating new traditions that align better with your well-being.  This might involve simplifying festivities or focusing on activities that bring personal fulfillment.  Consider volunteering at a food shelter or contacting your local church, pantry kitchen or school to see if you could sponsor a family in need.  Do you traditionally exchange gifts with co-workers, friends, or have a white elephant party with your book club members?  Maybe suggest collectively using the money to purchase gifts for those in need or utilizing the time together to volunteer in some way.  You may just find that others are receptive to this idea, and it eases their stress as well.

Embrace Gratitude:

Cultivate a mindset of gratitude by reflecting on positive aspects of your life.  This is not always an easy feat; it can take some effort.  Did you have a big goal? Break down that goal into smaller steps – did you how many of those small steps did you take?  Even if it’s just one – it’s a cause for celebration!  Did you make a new friend this year or rekindle an old friendship fractured by parenting or distance?  Success!  And keep it simple – did you keep a roof over your family’s head, food on the table, and lights on?  That’s enough!  Don’t allow yourself to get pulled into the social media status envy game.  Life is hard and it’s okay to admit that and be grateful for life’s simple pleasures.  Acknowledge and appreciate the small joys; fostering a sense of gratitude can shift your focus away from stressors.

The holidays can be both a source of joy and a challenging time for mental health.  By acknowledging your feelings, setting realistic expectations, and prioritizing self-care through physical movement and staying connected, you can navigate the season with greater resilience.  Remember that seeking support is a sign of strength and taking steps to care for your mental and physical well-being is a valuable gift to not only yourself, but those who depend on you.

Written by Kelly Reising who is passionate about nutrition, fitness and health. 

Dr. Mc Millan is a Board-Certified orthopedic sports medicine surgeon practicing in the Virtua Health System of south Jersey.  For more information please visit www.drseanmcmillan.com or follow us on twitter @sportsdrsean. 

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