The holidays can be a wonderful time full of fun and magic. Lights and candy canes. Parties and presents. Family and friends. Sometimes, or for some people, however, this time of year brings unpleasant or difficult feelings. Stress, anxiety, fear, sadness or pain can replace all the good cheer that’s presented as the “true” holiday experience. If you aren’t experiencing that festive glow, it can be easy to feel that you are somehow wrong. The idea that other people’s lives are perfect can make us resentful and judge ourselves too harshly.

People struggle with the holiday season for many reasons. There may be loss or trauma associated with them.  Seasonal activities and traditions may simply highlight a loss (the absence of a loved one) or bring on feelings of isolation. Issues around the extra expenses, time and effort that come with giving gifts or entertaining can cause stress and worry. Not being part of the mainstream culture that celebrates Christmas can be isolating as well.

When we see what we perceive to be the “right way” and our experience doesn’t match up, we can feel as though we’ve failed. The truth is there is no right way — or wrong way —- to experience the holidays.

We are bombarded with those images of what the holidays should look like and it can be difficult when our experience seems to differ. Dr. Andrea Liner, licensed clinical psychologist at Maria Droste Counseling Center, explains that improving one’s experience of the holidays can be a matter of re-framing expectations and regaining some control. This might mean accepting that the picture of the perfect holiday simply looks different for you, and that’s okay. This may also mean that you need to set boundaries for yourself in terms of media consumption, especially social media. The truth is, there is no one picture and different isn’t wrong. It also might mean taking some type of action to create a positive experience, even if that means stepping outside your comfort zone and taking a risk.

Andrea offers these steps to help you get started:

  • Identify your assumptions about how the holidays should look, and how your situation is different. For example, you might have the assumption that the holidays are a time to gather with family, but you don’t have a family to be with. Or you might believe you must spend a lot of money that you don’t have.
  • Next, look at what about the situation is in your control and what isn’t. What can you change? Perhaps you can reach out to family or include friends. Maybe start your own traditions. Try to make plans that work for your needs such as sober events if you’re trying not to drink for example, or doing a white elephant type git exchange instead of buying for everyone.
  • Consider if you’re dealing with a recent trauma, loss, or anniversary of such an event. Our brains have their own calendar function and we can often find ourselves feeling down at the time of year something bad happened. Maybe lingering grief or childhood associations exist that need to be addressed through therapy.
  • Work to find a balance between having enough alone/recharging time and isolating yourself. Look for opportunities to be social that are compatible with your needs. For example, a recent miscarriage may make it difficult to go to events centered around family and children but a more adult setting may feel more tolerable. Don’t hesitate to communicate your needs to your friends and families and enlist their help if it’s a particularly hard year for you. Taking the lead on creating plans may be a helpful way to set boundaries while still engaging with the season.
  • Look for opportunities to emotionally fuel yourself when possible. Volunteering is a great way to increase positive emotions, feel productive, and get social interaction with people outside of your friends and family. Maybe this is the time of year you take that vacation you’ve been dying to go on if you feel as thought staying home may be too hard.
  • What patterns can you see that are consistent throughout the year, not just during the holidays (but may get more noticeable during the holidays)? How can you change that thinking? The holidays are a time ripe for comparing to what other people have and are doing, but this can also be an issue throughout the rest of the year. Or maybe you struggle to stick to a budget all year and the holidays make it especially difficult to manage your money. If you have patterns that may go deeper than just this time of year, therapy can be helpful in addressing the root of the problem and finding new ways to adjust your behaviors and expectations.
  • Let yourself feel your feelings. You don’t have to go full-on Grinch, but letting yourself acknowledge and process the negative feelings instead of bottling them up or ignoring them is just as important as trying to find the opportunities for positivity. Have a day where you let yourself be down, but balance it with a plan for the next day to connect with someone or do something you enjoy.
  • Embrace your uniqueness. It can feel like you’re the odd one out if you don’t subscribe to the same beliefs and traditions as the majority of the population, but you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing to enjoy the season. Reconnect with your own beliefs and customs or create your own with your chosen family. There’s a lot more to winter than Christmas trees and Santa Claus!
  • Pay attention to how the weather and time of year affects your mood. If you find yourself especially lethargic and down due to the lack of warmth and sun, look into ways to embrace the coziness of the season. The Danish philosophy of “Hygge” (pronounced hoo-gah) comes from the need to survive harsh and dark winters and involves maximal coziness and togetherness. Think candles, twinkle lights, mugs of cocoa, thick blankets, and time with people you enjoy. It’s a way to focus more on the positives of winter than staying stuck on the hardships.

The reality is that everyone struggles, but accepting those struggles and finding coping strategies to get through difficulties and challenges can help you have happier holidays and a happier life. Work to control the aspects you can and seek help for the aspects you can’t. Especially if you’re noticing more intense negative emotions or have identified issues that creep up throughout the year, therapy can be an invaluable tool to feel more in control and more at peace with the season.

If you would like to speak to a therapist about struggles you have around the holidays or any issues, contact Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.



***Thank you to Maria Droste therapist, Andrea Liner, Psy.D., for contributions to this blog.***