Whether or not you personally celebrate any of the winter holidays, the cultural explosion that is the “holiday season” is nearly impossible to miss, and it starts early. With mass-media advertising, lights strewn throughout the city, themed music in every public place and galas being thrown by everyone we know, the season takes Philadelphia by storm. For some, this brings joy, excitement, wonder and revelry in togetherness. Many of us, however, find ourselves struggling to enjoy the holidays, or even just to get through them. For those of us in recovery from substance use, eating issues, trauma or simply our childhoods, the holidays can be a trigger that threatens our progress. Visits to family, financial challenges, reminders of sometimes painful memories and even the perceived pressure to feel “joyful” can leave us feeling cold and lonely. At worst, it can lead us to resort back to our old, unhealthy coping mechanisms.
If the holiday season brings challenges to your life, now is the time to be thinking about how to take care of yourself. In my work as a therapist, I have seen how helpful it is to anticipate and prepare for trying experiences, rather than be blindsided by them. In an effort to help get you started, here are some toppics to consider as you think about preparing for the season.
Family of origin: Many of us visit our families of origin during the season, and even for those of us with excellent family relationships, this can be stressful. When adult children go back to their family homes, they often find themselves reverting to childhood roles they had long since (and gladly) cast off. Memories of trauma and/or abuse can be brought up by returning to the places and people that surrounded the events. Friction between family members around disapproval, tacit agreements to “act straight” or leave out partners from celebrations and differences in political beliefs and values create tension. How do you manage these feelings when you are away from family? It is wise to bring those coping mechanisms along with you, as you are quite likely to need them! Financial stressors: The temptation to succumb to the pressure to spend beyond our means can be overwhelming. Work out your budget for holiday spending — including on gifts, travel, parties, décor and eating expenses — early and stick to it! The season really is meant to be about love, kindness and togetherness, regardless of what Macy’s may say to the contrary. Disruption of self-care: What are the ways in which you care for yourself on an ongoing basis? There is much disruption in eating, exercise, sleep and substance-use routines associated with our cultural celebrations this time of year. It is good and important to enjoy yourself, while also ensuring you are maintaining the ways in which you keep your body and your mind healthy. Devise your strategies now, and tweak them as you go to make them work for you. Emotional triggers: Whether you are challenged by social anxiety or by loneliness, know how to gauge when you need support and plan for how to get it. Friends, formal and informal support groups and professionals are there to help you when you struggle. It takes both wisdom and strength to ask for help and to begin the journey toward creating new meaning and memories around the season that can make it special for you.