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Getting Through the Holidays


Trigger warnings: grief, anxiety, isolation

Getting through the holidays may not seem like a great feat, but we all know that it can be overwhelming, anxiety-inducing, and even isolating. This article provides some tips to do more than survive the holidays – but to enjoy them!

(I realize that not every reader celebrates every holiday, holidays in general, and especially Western or Christian holidays. If you are one of those readers, I hope that you can still find something useful in this post, and at the very least, that it may help you understand the stress and anxiety experienced by those that do.)

So much goes into the holiday season: preparation, anticipation, money, time, and energy. It’s no small surprise then, that holidays can bring about greater anxiety, depression, and other mental wellness challenges. Some days may be better than others, but overall, those of us who deal with issues in our own mental health may anticipate the holidays with trepidation, fear, and anxiety.

Loss and Holidays

Whether a recent loss or one from years or even decades ago – the emptiness that someone leaves in your life when they pass is often felt more deeply during major events: birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. Grief can be difficult to navigate. And although you never “get over it,” time often has a way of helping us feel the pain less keenly on a daily basis. But then the holidays are upon us and traditions, memories, and feelings come flooding back.

Some things to do to help with grief during holidays:

  • Acknowledge your feelings. Give yourself time to grieve again if you need to. Whether you have to schedule it, or just walk away for a bit, allow the feelings to be felt.
  • Focus on happy memories. Whether alone or with others, think about or share with one another fun and happy memories of the person you’re missing. “Remember when he…” and “That one time when she…” or “You might know know that they…” are often great conversation. And don’t worry if you start laughing through your grief. Fun and happy memories are good.
  • Start a new tradition. Some families set a place at the table to include the idea of the person who has passed. Others light a candle to burn throughout the day. Still others may establish something new like sharing a memory around the dinner table, creating decorations, or even blogging about their loved ones. Whatever new tradition feels right to you, give it a go.

Gift Giving

Whether anxiety around shopping, spending money, or finding the “perfect” gifts, gift-giving anxiety can be overwhelming. Here’s some of what I do to keep my gift anxiety at a minumum:

  • Make a budget and stick to it. (I always plan a little overage for those last-minute additions, too.)
  • Make lists. I make lists of who I’m giving gifts to and in the columns next to their name: what I think they’d like within my budget, whether it’s been purchased/ordered/arrived, whether it’s been wrapped, and then whether it’s been given/shipped out. This alleviates some of the anxiety that comes from the chaos that can come from having things everywhere and in every status.
  • Not panic when someone I didn’t plan to give a gift to happens to give one to me. When someone gives me a gift and I don’t have one for them, I’ve learned to say “thank you” and accept the gift graciously. I don’t make excuses for not having a gift for them. I simply say “I didn’t plan on exchanging, but I’m so thankful you’ve thought of me.” Most people are more excited about giving than receiving, so accepting their gift with gratitude and delight is usually more than enough. (And I write thank you notes to mail out later, too.)
  • Keep the receipts for every gift I give. Instead of worrying that the size was wrong, or the color wouldn’t be right, I keep receipts and can give them to others in case they need to exchange their gift. Often times post-holiday sales will devalue the monetary value of a gift at a store, so giving the giftee the receipt if they need it means they get the full value of your gift upon exchange.

Pandemic Holidays: Get Togethers & Isolation

There will, inevitably, be lots of emotions around the holidays during a pandemic. From guilt to fear to isolation, remember that your feelings are valid.

If your family or friends are pressuring you to join a holiday gathering, it’s OK to say no. You do not have to jeopardize your own health and wellbeing to make others feel better. Your health (mental wellbeing and physical wellbeing) are yours to manage. You don’t have to let others dictate for you how you spend your holidays.

If you’re single and live alone (as I do) the holidays can feel incredibly lonely. (For example, I will not be able to visit any family on Christmas day this year.) If you’re feeling lonely and isolated, find something to fill your time. If it’s nice weather, maybe go for a drive. Do crafts. Binge a movie marathon. And if you want to connect with others, use Facetime, Zoom, or other video/audio chats to spend time virtually with loved ones. Remember that alone doesn’t have to mean lonely.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a set of guidelines for holiday celebrations during the COVID pandemic.

Surviving the Holidays

Some ideas for getting through the holidays:

  • Pay attention to your own self care, and don’t let up regardless of what expectations have been placed on you. Self care matters more when you’re under more stress.
  • Delegate what tasks you can to others. Maybe another family member can go to the grocery store or post office. Or order groceries to be delivered. Find ways to make things easier, not harder, at this time.
  • Say no to things without feeling guilty. If you can’t fit in one more thing, then either opt out, or push things to after the holidays. December 25 may be Christmas, but it’s not a deadline. Gifts received after that day are still welcomed and appreciated.
  • Take time for your feelings. Grief, anxiety, depression – it’s ok to feel things. Don’t bottle them up or deny them. Deal with them as you do regularly.
  • Create new traditions for yourself or your family. For example, my mother used to do a full turkey dinner on Christmas. What stress that was! I decided that would not be my tradition. I make a nice lasagna the night before and bake it on Christmas day. I don’t spend my holiday in the kitchen because that causes me stress and I want to enjoy the day.
  • Remember your self care. A long hot bath, a cup of tea, a walk or drive, and even sleeping in a bit can all help keep you grounded/centered for the holiday.
  • Make lists or whatever your version of organization is – then use them. Keeping things organized is a great way to keep chaos (and therefore anxiety) at bay.

Remember that the holidays are supposed to be fun! Good cheer can be yours, too, when you find ways to protect yourself, take a breath, and lean into it. You’ve got this.

As always, if you experience feelings that are outside of what you can handle, contact us here or reach out for professional help. You’re worth it.

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