By Jennifer LeDuc
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? Holiday sights and sounds are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e: the perfect turkey, the perfect tree, the perfect kids, the perfect bank account, the perfect in-laws, the perfect time. It seems like from the moment the last kid rings the doorbell on Halloween to the second or third day of the new year, every store, every magazine, every commercial reminds us, oh so constantly, how wonderful and perfect this time of year is for everyone – but you, and maybe the president.
But in truth, the holidays are a challenging season for many people across all ages, walks of faith and stages of life.
Families are messy, bank accounts are tight, decorating the tree becomes a fiasco when kids bicker or couples disagree about little things – like where to put the penguin-on-the-sled ornament that his mother gave him and you can’t stand. Or carving the turkey on Thanksgiving – the denouement of the most indulgent day – becomes a bloody butchering because someone drank too much and got sloppy with a carving knife and they need stitches. Or it’s your first holiday season alone after the divorce and you aren’t sure what you’re feeling. Or there’s going to be an empty seat, or the feeling that someone is missing, because they are, and the holidays can bring up some raw feelings after the passing of a loved one.
“How do I make it through when everyone seems joyful,” is a question Dr. Patty Luckenbach, associate minister at Mile Hi Church in Lakewood, hears often this time of year.
“The holidays in our culture represent family, love, joy, abundance. Those are qualities a lot of people aren’t experiencing, or from their experiences have deep rooted resistance to allow themselves to just be joyful,” she explained. As each of us is different, so to are the triggers and situations that give rise to inner stress, sadness and anxiety. While a chaotic shopping trip or a disastrous dinner can certainly shake us up, Luckenbach said for some, “It could be as subtle as falling leaves or snow, or hearing Christmas carols – anything in our humanness” that reminds us of a loss or sadness when we’re being asked to “rekindle navigating the holidays.”
So do we cancel Christmas? Humbug. Luckily, the first, and most crucial step in navigating the holidays is the remember that you are not alone. What comes next? Well, you have options, and lots of them. And if along the way, one of them isn’t working, always go back to step one.
Among the many resources that Mile Hi Church offers to everyone, regardless of faith, is support. Every early November Luckenbach leads a bereavement workshop for those navigating loss and sadness during the holidays, and many places of worship offer support services to connect the community with spiritual guides and, as Luckenbach emphasized, with one another. Connecting with others and allowing yourself to share your story helps with that first step in realizing you’re not alone.
Colorado-based author and director of the Center for Love and Life Transitions Dr. Alan Wofelt offers some tips in his brochure “Helping Yourself Heal During the Holidays” that are valuable whether you have experienced loss or not, like planning ahead for holiday gatherings and deciding what traditions may not have a place anymore and creating new rituals and traditions.
Creating a “holiday stress audit” is one of several suggestions that Jenna Glover, Ph.D., and director of Psychology Training who specialize in traumatic stress, parenting and other childhood behaviors at Children’s Hospital Colorado, which offers several holiday stress guides on their website.
By auditing – or reviewing – expectations, commitments and traditions if it causes you stress and anxiety every year, why are you doing it? Glover encourages us to ask ourselves, “Does this bring me joy?”
And by taking empowered steps to eliminate those stress-generating elements, even if that’s something that breaks with tradition – like not sending holiday cards, or over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house you don’t – forgoing a frenzied feast for stopping over for a relaxing dessert – you will be better for it and enjoy what the holidays are about.
And kids feel it, too. Glover emphasizes commitment to routines like meals and bedtime and being more selective about what activities you and your child commit to. In children, Glover explained, stress shows up differently than in adults, who may more easily observe their own feelings. Changes in a child’s sleep and eating habits are two signs that parents can be cognizant of throughout the holiday season.
Mindful indulging in addition to exercise is also important for both children and adults, stressed Glover.
“Exercise is one of the most effective ways to handle mood and depression and for a variety of reasons I encourage people to make it a habit,” Glover said. Making it “fun and doable” with even just 15 minutes a day not only supports our response to stress, but offers valuable quality time to reconnect and unwind with your child or your own thoughts – be it with a game of tag, playing catch, or just a walk around the neighborhood.
Lastly, make gratitude a ritual. Both Luckenbach and Glover encourage practicing gratitude with yourself and with your family. By creating a daily ritual with your family, Glover explained, you can find joy and appreciation for the season by looking at “gifts of the day that aren’t materially based.”