Handling the Holidays: Good and Bad
The holiday season carries with it a whole host of different meanings for everyone. I think of myself as someone with a mostly positive outlook on the holiday season, but I think that just about everyone would agree that this time of year can be complicated in one way or another. And for some people, complicated can represent years of negative or hurtful experiences. To me, there are two major challenges to the winter season: first of all, there’s the winter itself! Without wishing to break news to anyone here, it gets awfully cold around these parts this time of year. The holidays in and of themselves can buoy us a fair amount in terms of giving us something to focus on and stay occupied with, but in November and December we do still see the initial challenges of shorter days and colder temperatures. The Midwest on average tends to see higher rates of problematic alcohol usage per capita than other regions of the country, and I believe that this has a lot to do with the ways in which cold can isolate us. There is the purely physical weariness of not getting much sunlight and feeling like you’re launching an expedition just to get to work every day, but the emotional sense of being cut off from others due to the challenges of getting out and doing things presents a major burden for many as well.
The other major challenge of the holidays is the way in which this time of year often prompts us to stop and reflect on how things have changed for us in the last year. For many, this reflection gets us thinking about the ways in which our lives aren’t where we want them to be right now. It is very easy to think of our lives in terms of what we feel is missing, both with things we want in the future (relationships, jobs, goals) and people we might miss from the past. The overall cultural push to celebrate during this time of year can make it feel uncomfortable to even acknowledge that we’re struggling. For someone who is facing the holidays as the first big event since the passing of a loved one, this is an especially difficult challenge to face. We know when someone passes away that these reminders are coming in the future, but their absence from our holiday season can be the first time that the reality of this really hits home.
When it comes to feelings of grief and of something “missing” from our lives, I will first and foremost always encourage clients to lean on the support systems that they do have in place. This might even involve expressing how you feel in ways that you haven’t tried yet before. If you’re feeling sad or upset about the absence of someone you loved over Thanksgiving or Christmas, I encourage you to put that feeling into words for the people around you. Denying yourself of the emotion that you feel around the situation can prolong and exacerbate the hurt feelings you have—and the people around you will understand that something is the matter whether or not you say it out loud. If this is something that feels uncomfortable to do, I will as always recommend that talking through this hesitancy with a counselor might help to make this step feel more comfortable for you. But the message I offer to just about every client is this: you are not meant to carry the big burdens of life on your own.
For one reason or another, many clients tell me that February is their least favorite month of the year. I think that this is in part because February represents the tail end of our season of cold weather and short days (without much to keep us busy), and in part because people are more stressed and exhausted by the months of winter that have led up to February. When it comes to managing the later stages of winter, my recommendation is to not put all your eggs in the holiday basket! As I wrote above, the events that keep us busy in November and December can give us something to focus on, but this can also bring with it the difficulty of feeling a “letdown” once we get into January and February. As you have time in December, be thinking about how you want to make use of your time in January and February. If this means trying something new, learning a new skill, investing more into relationships, so be it—anything you can do to keep your mind busy in these months is going to end up paying dividends for you. I particularly urge you to be thinking about this now because you may find in January and February that your motivation to do so has already been drained, and it’s much easier to follow through on an existing plan than it is to come up with a new one from scratch.
My hope is that everyone reading this is able to find some sort of positivity in the holidays, but I recognize at the same time the reality that just about everyone faces some challenge around the holiday season. Counseling services are highly sought out during this time of the year because of how often challenges crop up in this season, and if you feel that structured support in counseling would help you in this season, I encourage you to reach out to the staff here at BHC. The ups and downs of the holidays might seem like a daunting task to unwind, but even if you’re not able to answer every question in time for this Christmas, you may find that facing the emotions of this season head-on in a counseling setting helps you to better manage this time of year for years to come.