December 14, 2017

How to cope when the holidays aren't merry

During the holidays, it can be hard to escape the signs of the season. From commercials on television to a constant stream of carols in the stores, holiday cheer is everywhere you go. But for some, it’s not the best time of the year.

Loss of a loved one, financial challenges, illness or a recent move can bring up feelings of loneliness and trigger depression. While for others, time with family can be fraught with stress and conflict.

UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain said that often the holidays are filled with expectations of what they should be like – presents under the tress, joy-filled time with family and even a magical moment or two. But trying to live up to those expectations can be stressful.

“Holidays serve a purpose – they take us out of everyday life and encourage us to reflect,” she said, adding that they can be a reminder to think of others by encouraging us to give rather than receive. And when we do give, we actually experience our own rewards. Research has shown that giving gifts – even small ones – and helping others can improve our mood and even benefit our own health.

Some ideas Mirgain offers are volunteering to help – whether a neighbor or an organization. Making small gifts, even a batch of cookies, can brighten someone’s day. And just as important, spending time with others can be meaningful for them and you.

It can be easy to get wrapped up in the pressure of the season – the perfect gift, the perfect meal, feeling happy even when you don’t.

“You might need to scale back your own expectations and activities to conserve energy and make space for processing what’s going on in your life. Give yourself permission to only do what feels right,” she said, adding that it’s important to practice self-care – get rest, unplug from social media, exercise and just take a break. And remember to just let it be.

“Accept your experience as it is and don’t deny what you’re feeling,” she said. “It’s important that you treat yourself kindly, like you would a friend.” And speaking of friends, reaching out for support from others can help. But make sure it’s a social connection that feels good to you, and not one you feel obligated or pressured by.

When events mean you'll have to spend time with challenging family members, friends or even co-workers, preparation can help.

“As much as you may disagree someone - whether a colleague or cousin - who has a differing worldview, the reality is that you’re not going to change their minds,” Mirgain said. “Consider limiting what you might share in conversation and if need be, practice some strategies for managing difficult conversations.”

Among some ideas to consider:

  • Be neutral: Stick to topics that aren’t particularly emotional, and avoid other topics as much as possible. “When you’re with family, it’s only natural for topics like relationships, children, job status and of course, even politics, to come up,” Mirgain said. “If you’re initiating a conversation, try to keep it on a neutral ground. You may not avoid something entirely, but it’s a place to start.”

  • Distract: If the conversation is starting to escalate to a more heated level, try to cool it down with a distraction. “Say you need to get something to drink, or even that you need to use the restroom,” she said. “You’re trying to give yourself some breathing space and let the other person calm down. If you can step away, it can give both of you the time you need to regain a calm mind.”

  • Breathe: Before responding to a comment that may be irritating, try taking a deep breath first. “Taking a breath before responding can release some of the tension that may be in your body, and it gives your mind a chance to catch up to your emotions,” she said.

  • Avoid: When all else fails, consider steering clear of the person you know might be difficult to spend time with. If you’ll be in a large group, Mirgain suggests seeking out the family members with whom you feel connection. And again, when you find yourself with ones that are challenging, keep to the neutral topics and if need be, make an excuse for why you need to leave the conversation.

Mirgain offered the reminder that it’s perfectly acceptable to tell someone ‘We don’t see eye-to-eye on this subject and I’d like to enjoy our time together. Let’s talk about something else."

“Sometimes we avoid saying things because we don’t want to create tension or make others uncomfortable. So we may tolerate the family member who keeps bringing up topics that may conflict with our own beliefs,” she said. “But you can – and should – set boundaries for your own well-being.”

While Hallmark holiday movies suggest there are always happy endings, the reality is that the happy endings might not be what we expected. Mirgain suggests that when we focus on the mundane – shoveling an elderly neighbor’s driveway, baking cookies together with a spouse, enjoying pizza and a movie with friends – we can remember what really matters during the holidays, and every day of the year.