As you gaze at the twinkling lights dazzling the trees in your front yard, you break into a bright smile. But in the background, just beyond that holiday halo, the darkness still looms — as do your worries. How will I afford gifts this year? What will the future look like? While the rituals of past years gave you comfort, buffering you from stress, the uncertainty surrounding this season is making you feel uneasy, and the holiday blues descend.
“We’ve all been through so much loss in fundamental ways this year, from forgoing get-togethers and celebrations to losing jobs,” observes psychotherapist Diana Concannon, Psy.D and professor at Alliant International University. Though our first instinct may be to push away this grief, healing from it requires acknowledging it. “The holidays are a time for looking back at the past year, and simply reflecting on the emotional roller coaster you’ve gone through softens the hold that negative emotions have on you by creating a less intense experience,” she says. “You’ll soon realize your personality isn’t ‘fused’ with these emotions: You are deeper than they are and more resilient.”
Indeed, the holidays offer all of us the opportunity to focus on what truly gives life meaning. “This time of year, after all, is about miracles, so use that to inspire you to find the miraculous in your life,” urges Concannon. Read on to discover how letting yourself feel the entire range of emotions within you will ultimately allow the holiday spirit to lift you toward greater joy, peace, and purpose — and help you overcome those holiday blues.
Overwhelmed with fear? Call yourself by name.
Your holiday decor looks just right, but the cheery tableau belies the churning anxiety within you, as you can’t help but worry about the future. “Stress comes from two main sources,” reveals Erin Olivo, Ph.D., author of Wise Mind Living (Buy on Amazon, $15.95). “The belief that something is challenging, and the belief that you don’t have what it takes to overcome it.”
Imagine you’re giving advice to someone experiencing what you are, suggests Marc A. Brackett, Ph.D., author of Permission to Feel (Buy on Amazon, $15.39) and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “Let’s say it’s your mother struggling with negative thoughts. You might say, Let’s brainstorm ideas, like planning regular phone calls. All of a sudden, solutions you had trouble applying to yourself occur to you just because you’ve created psychological distance.”
Boost the benefit by saying your name. “When I’m engaging in catastrophic thinking, I say, Marc, you can get through this. The third person creates the space you need to gain perspective and boost confidence.”
Concerned about finances? Reframe abundance.
’Tis the season of giving, but you’ve had to tighten your belt and are worried about disappointing loved ones. Financial setbacks impact us both emotionally, shaking our confidence, and practically, undermining our bottom line. Overcoming this challenge starts with changing your mindset.
Redefine what abundance means to you. Giving your time and talents curbs money fears by sparking a growth mindset. “Small acts in the service of others — from stringing lights for an elderly neighbor to bringing cookies to a shelter — build our sense of wealth,” says Olivo. Indeed, inexpensive gifts that speak to the future can make that mindset contagious, adds Becky Kiser, author of Sacred Holidays (Buy on Amazon, $9.79), recalling how her kids once gave their grandfather, who had just beaten cancer, a hairbrush to mark the end of chemo. “He uses it to this day. In a season when the symbolic is so powerful, giving presents that show what you hope for someone gives you hope.”
Worried it won’t be good enough? Surrender to reality.
The snow is falling and the turkey is in the oven, and you’re still worrying that it’s not good enough. It’s natural to try to create the “perfect” holiday in order to feel like you’re in control in the midst of so much that’s out of your control. But sky-high expectations only set you up to feel like you’re falling short.
Loosen the grip perfectionism has on you by focusing on what you can change, says David Richo, Ph.D., author of Five True Things: A Little Guide to Embracing Life’s Big Challenges (Buy on Amazon, $12.95). “Anxiety is triggered when you’re attempting to change irreversible reality — like focusing on making sure everyone in your family is happy all the time, which is impossible,” he says. A big part of feeling less stress and getting beyond the holiday blues is focusing on reversible reality: What do you have control over? Also, just hearing yourself say yes starts to replace anxiety with serenity: Yes, it’s okay to lower my expectations. Yes, I’m doing my best. “The paradox is that you’re more empowered when you surrender to reality than when you fight it.”
Feeling negative? Savor small miracles.
As you watch a negative news story on TV, your energy tanks and your holiday spirit takes a hit, depleting your sense of optimism. Exhausted, you sink into the sofa, hoping to feel more hopeful soon.
When the holiday blues come around and you’re feeling less than festive, tap into tiny joys. You’re familiar with the phrase “Fake it till you make it.” Turns out it’s backed by science, says Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., founder of the Happiness Studies Academy. “I’m a big proponent of action; even if we initially fake it, we ultimately become it,” he says. “Research shows that our whole being, mind and body, wants to be on the same page — we don’t like a discrepancy between what we think and what we do, so persisting in taking positive actions can change negative thoughts.”
Doing just that is easier than you think. “Anything from watching a sitcom to dancing — the most impactful form of exercise on psychological well-being — helps you feel more positive instantly,” says Ben-Shahar. These small doses of joy create a positive affirmation bias, the expectation that good is all around us, adds Concannon. “This is the miracle of being present proves to you over and over that the stress of this year didn’t deplete you beyond repair — you are still whole.”
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.