As a therapist and life coach, I spend most of November and December every year listening to clients share the myriad of ways that they are dreading the holidays. This is supposedly a time of celebrating, gift-giving, gathering for festive meals, trimming the tree, lighting the candles and spinning the dreidel. But, it isn’t that way for everyone. It can be a time of seeing the negatives of one’s life under a microscope. If my client is single, childless or unhappily partnered, they feel the really big sting. Or, it can be devastating to contemplate upcoming celebrations if they will be spent with family members who may be unsavory at best, or downright abusive at worst. I always say that whatever is lurking in the shadows of your life, whatever challenging feelings or people that exist, the holidays will surely bring that up to the surface. This is particularly painful when these feelings are juxtaposed with the expectation, and cultural messages, that this is a “jolly time of year.”

Knowing this, I believe it is necessary to give clients, when they are struggling, lots of space and time to feel and express their emotions and to validate them. I ask them how this time is for them and never assume anything. Our sessions may be the only place for them to acknowledge and express their isolation, loneliness, dread and shame. Sharing the feelings, and getting support, can help. No one wants to walk around with all of that silently brewing inside to bear it alone. Beyond that, I encourage practicing what I call RADICAL SELF-CARE, being exquisitely aware of feelings, your wanting and needing and responding to yourself even more intensely and compassionately than usual. This involves checking in not only with your emotions, but your thoughts, and even more powerfully, your body sensations. The body is an astute guide for what is needed. The cues of tired, hungry or thirsty are perhaps easy to notice and obey. But, a “pain in the neck,” or a “knot in the stomach,” more subtle ones, also indicate that something is awry and the body is sending messages to listen and to notice. Pause to attend to the messages and respond as their body is guiding you to do.

When at holiday gatherings or parties, if the shoulders are tense or a headache is brewing, notice this and take stock of what it might mean. Taking a break to step outside or in the restroom and breathing deeply can go a long way to infuse the body with fresh oxygen and give you a chance to release the tension, which helps decompression from stress. If the body persists with tension or discomfort, leaving a gathering early might be just what you need. Watching what you eat and drink is also very important to keep the mind and body at its best during stressful times. Alcohol, sugar and caffeine will certainly be a part of most, if not all, holiday meals and events. But these are powerful drugs that can either depress or stimulate the system, and can increase your feeling blue or anxious. If possible, skip or limit these foods and drinks. Seriously, if the holidays are a little slice of hell for you this year, consider my suggestion.

On a larger scale, if it is possible to limit, or avoid, time spent with challenging or toxic people, then do that. Obligations may not be absolutely necessary. Check in with yourself about what is actually possible and allow your true feelings to be your guide about making final holiday plans, rather than blindly going along with obligations or traditions. “I always spend Thanksgiving at my Aunt Sally’s” can be replaced with “I always feel horrible and depleted spending time with Aunt Sally, and the family who gather at her house.” If this is true for you, politely decline her invitation and accept friend’s offer to join her this year instead. It may be terrifying to imagine upsetting the apple cart of the norm, but it may be worth it. I always encourage considering this if the difficulty ahead is worth avoiding.

Now that November is here remember that for others, or perhaps even for yourself, the holiday season is NOT necessarily festive. The upcoming meals and gatherings might be stressful, sad or even depressing and ringing in the new year indicates that the holiday stress is over and that you have reached the finish line. Very soon, it will once again be a new year. I see it as an opportunity, as every new day really is, for new beginnings and for making radical self-care a daily, not an annual, practice.

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