Do More than Survive the Holidays

I look at an old painting by Norman Rockwell…

This painting shows a large family sitting around a table, Christmas cheer, everyone is smiling and enjoying each other’s company, with seemingly no worries or troubles.

Yet, as I look at this painting, I am reminded of those who may not be experiencing joy during the holidays, but are struggling with past trauma, and the emotions that accompany many mental health issues.

Different Expectations, Different Realities

While many people are enjoying the gift of relaxation during the holidays, for some, the holidays can become a time of social isolation, panic, and high anxiety or depression. This can leave many feeling hopeless or emotionally out of control. 

The gift of relaxation is oftentimes marred with the expectations of happiness and cheerfulness during the holidays, when in reality, we may be dying inside due to the stress of past trauma, family issues, or even just abandoning our daily routine.

Facing Trauma during the Holidays

Trauma takes form in many different ways and may be induced by being in the presence of family members who model or create a toxic environment, are physically or emotionally abusive, or struggle with mental health issues themselves.

Being forced to see these individuals or feeling the obligation of having to interact with them, can bring up triggers of emotional pain from the past. A holiday song, the smell of holiday food or Christmas trees, and traditions can remind an individual of an abusive person or time in their lives from the past.

We may have lost someone close to us during a past holiday season, and our joy may be lost during the season as we grieve and recover from our loss.  Other stress triggers may come if we are experiencing financial worries, stressed out family members, or health problems.

Covid Complicates The Season Even More

As if facing our fears of stress, abuse, or trauma are not enough, we throw in the invisible society-crippler and connection-stealer, COVID.  This virus has given us the added stress of worrying about the safety of our friends and family, plus the guilt associated with not being able to see some relatives because they may be at higher risk or are choosing  not to participate out of self-protection.

Our world has changed how we interact with others and this will be the first holiday season with a pandemic to maneuver through and find a way to connect with those we love, even if it means through a Zoom video conference.

The Mental Struggle is Real

The busyness of the holidays, the joyous laughter, and the gathering of a large family can be a highly stressful and stimulating time for those struggling to control their fears and anxiety.  Our brain was designed not only to carry out cognitive functioning, but also to protect us from danger, whether real or perceived.

If the part of our brain that protects us is over-stimulated, it can cause emotional distress like depression, anger, shame, guilt, worry, or physical symptoms of tension in our muscles, stomach, and other parts of our body. When experiencing these types of symptoms, our mind just wants to hide and isolate from the apparent danger, ultimately causing loneliness or depression and can zap our confidence and esteem.

It's Okay to not be Okay

My friend, I want you to know that it is okay to not be okay. There are ways of not only surviving the holidays but thriving! 

So, how are we to cope through this holiday season? Wellness starts with your own mental health and self-care.

Here are some tips to survive the holidays:  

Create strong boundaries 

First, YOU have a voice and can make choices regarding the amount of time you have a presence at family functions.

You may decide upfront that if things become too intense and you start experiencing physical or emotional symptoms of stress or anxiety, to give yourself permission to be excused from the situation for a short time or the rest of the day. It will also feel empowering to take back some control that you feel is missing.    

Enlist friends or family members you trust and feel comfortable enough with that you can call or reach out to them when feeling overwhelmed.  Help them understand what  you are experiencing during the holidays, and let them know what you may need. Make a plan to talk to them before and/or after the family event.        

Maintain Habits and Routines

Second, remember we are creatures of habit and routine. So…

  • Make sure you get plenty of sleep and stick to your sleep and eating routines. Getting eight hours of sleep on a routine basis helps you maintain those Cortisol levels and keep your body’s circadian rhythm.    
  • Maintain your exercise routine. Exercise increases all of the “feel good” chemicals in your body, like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, which help maintain your good mood and decrease your stress.  
  • Make a plan to shop online or ahead of time. This helps you avoid the last-minute rush of individuals who will be “stress shopping” to complete their lists.    
  • Create a schedule for the day and stick to it. This will help you create boundaries and checking those items off your list releases dopamine and increases your good mood.    
  • Volunteer your time for others who are in need. This is even more opportunity to release those “feel good” chemicals.    
  • Take breaks as needed. Go for walks or simply set aside some alone time to decompress and re-energize.    
  • Create a strong support system. God created us for connection, and healing happens within relationships that can advocate for your mental health.    
  • Respect other’s need for their space and maintain a routine. 

Remember To Pray

Pray.  Pray and meditate on the word of God.  Pray to God that He will take away your anxiety.  Pray that God takes away this burden of trauma in this moment, heals, and restores you.

When you don’t feel God’s presence: 

If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

Psalm 139:9-10 –

When you feel stressed: 

In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help.  From His temple He heard my voice; my cry came before Him, into His ears. 

Psalm 18:6

When you need a reminder of your value, there is the price paid on the cross:

But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.  

Isaiah 53:5

Other Methods of Coping  

Grounding yourself is a technique that brings your mind back to the here and now. 

The part of your brain that is trying to protect you in certain situations may start firing, so you will need coping skills to help you through those moments of anxiety.    

Here's an article over at my website, Kansas City Counselor, for a few mindfulness exercises to help you in times of feeling anxious: Mindfulness Exercises: Safe-Place Visualization

The holidays are a tough time for everyone. However, just remember to create a plan, stick to your routines, and eat healthy and get plenty of sleep. And be sure to give yourself grace as God has already given you. If you practice these things, you will do more than survive the holidays—you will thrive in the holidays. You got this!