With the holidays upon us, we are inundated with images of what we’re supposed to be enjoying… beautiful decorations, pristine snowfall, kissing under the mistletoe, hot cider in front of the warm glow of a fireplace, and happy times with family and friends. After all, that’s what the TV commercials show us, right? Isn’t that the American dream?
It all seems good enough, unless you live in the real world. Sometimes it doesn’t snow. (Let’s be honest, in Oklahoma, it rarely snows.) Sometimes there are no holiday party invitations with cider, mistletoe, fireplaces, and friends. Sometimes, there isn’t money for presents, or the kids act like royal pains during the break. Sometimes we are alone.
The truth is that when our lives don’t match the commonly perpetuated holiday fairy tales, we can feel isolated and disappointed. While the notion that suicide rates spike during the holidays is actually a myth, the holidays can still make us aware of how we wish for more in our lives.
So, what are we supposed to do? How do we kick the holiday blues if they set in? Here are a few suggestions for how to manage seasonal sadness, and pave the way a joyful new year that lies ahead.
Acknowledge your feelings
That’s right, I said it. If you’re sad, admit that you’re sad. Self compassion begins with acknowledging your current state of being. In my counseling work, one of the early tasks with clients is to learn to describe one’s own affective state. Once move beyond the basic 4 state descriptors (good, bad, happy, sad), and learn to describe our feelings with nuance and clarity, you take ownership of your feelings and become empowered to move intentionally into positive space.
Acknowledging your own feelings provides compassion for yourself, even if you don’t feel you receive it from others. This literally re-wires your brain in productive ways, and helps you begin to feel better. To be clear, I’m not suggesting we wallow in our negative emotions incessantly. Once we acknowledge them, we can create an internal dialogue around love, acceptance, and support. It is a starting point for helping yourself feel better.
We can draw from Eastern teachings to remember that no condition is permanent. No matter what is going on with you, things will not be the same moving forward. Your mind, body, and circumstances are constantly evolving. Tomorrow, you literally won’t be the same person you are today. Does this guarantee things will necessarily be better? Nobody can promise that. But, it does remind us that we always have the opportunity for growth. We can be intentional about choosing to step into tomorrow with hope and grace for the self.
Get moving, preferably outside
When it’s cold outside and the wind is blowing, going outside may be one of the last things you want to do! Still, the cognitive and mood benefits of exercise are well documented. Take advantage of something we know to be effective! If you don’t want to hit the gym or play some pick-up basketball, try just going for a walk or even doing a bit of yard work outside. Believe me, I understand. When you’re feeling the blahs, getting out for a walk in the cool air may sound about as fun as a root canal. But, aside from the benefits we know about, it’s also an example of your taking action for your own benefit. Put another way, it is an investment in yourself, which is one of the best examples of self compassion.
While we can be inundated with reminders about the things we lack in our lives during the holidays, we can be intentional about finding little things to be grateful for. Maybe it’s something as simple as getting the coffee-milk-sugar balance just right in this morning’s coffee (something I hope to improve upon in tomorrow’s brew), or the feel of your favorite sweater on your neck. It doesn’t have to be anything big.
This is not a “turn your frown upside down” suggestion, and it’s not an attempt to get you to see that you don’t really have it so bad. (Those are the opposite of self compassion, and I don’t recommend them). However, there is a growing body of research on gratitude and its power to enact significant emotional change for us. Gratitude is something we can be intentional about, and we don’t need anyone else’s help to achieve it. Practicing gratitude puts us in charge of our own emotional destinies, and research shows that it really helps.
If you’re feeling alone and sad this holiday, finding service opportunities may help in many ways. Of course, the social component is not to be underestimated. Just getting out and connecting with other good people can be a real mood booster. Even if you’re an introvert, Human interaction is important, and re-checking your social media feeds for updates in the last 10 minutes just won’t get it done in this regard.
As with gratitude, there is increasing research that shows the emotional and physical benefits of volunteerism. In some cases, the best benefits come out of the sincere desire to help others, instead of just volunteering because you think it’s good for you. In any case, social connection and demonstrating compassion for others are good for the mind and the soul.
Honestly, I’m not one for how-to lists. These suggestions are not offered as quick-fix solutions, but as ways we can become more intentional about our practices. By choosing to engage the world in healthy ways, we create opportunities to cultivate happiness. Of course, working with a qualified therapist to develop healthy emotional practices can be a tremendous help too. If you’re in the Oklahoma City area, feel free to contact me at any time to set up a consultation. No matter where you are, I wish you peace and happiness this holiday season. May the new year bring you joy and hope for a bright future.
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