Charlie Brown might have said it best as he opined to his pal, Linus: "Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel."
Yes, the holiday season can foster moments of great joy, but it can also at times be a source of distress.
Whether you're worried about purchasing the right mix of decorations to create the perfect atmosphere for a Thanksgiving meal, or finding a way to connect with family members who live on the opposite coast, the holidays can be tricky to navigate.
It's easy, especially in our increasingly social media-driven world, to "compare and despair," says Dr. Michelle Paul, psychologist and director of The PRACTICE Mental Health Clinic at UNLV.
It's difficult to tear ourselves away from constant messages of what they're doing and what we're, in turn, not doing."
Dr. Michelle Paul, psychologist
As pumpkin pies bake, and grocery stores line their shelves with peppermint-flavored treats, Paul explained the sources of holiday blues that can sometimes affect us, and shared some practical ways to greet this time of year.
What causes holiday stress?
There are a number of things about the holidays that can potentially be sources of distress. For each person it's going to be different, but there are some general themes that we can reliably predict.
- Loss of a loved one: If someone has lost a loved one, that loss can be made all the more poignant, and experienced more deeply, around the holidays. The holidays generally represent a time where family and friends get together, and enjoy each other's company, so having lost someone can create distress.
- Materialism: In our culture, the holidays represent a focus on having gifts and possessions. There is marketing around how the Thanksgiving table 'should' be set, and how the holiday decorations inside and outside of our homes 'should' appear. However, not everyone has the means to make extra purchases, setting the stage for comparing and judging others or ourselves negatively for 'failing' to keep up.
- Hustle and bustle: Rushing to make sure I have the right groceries, the perfect gift for that someone special, and the best decorations, is magnified during the holidays. It's difficult to find a balance around celebrating in a way that's meaningful, and not getting caught up in a long to-do list.
- Unrealistic Expectations: If your circumstances don't match the cultural ideal of a Norman Rockwell painting, your mind tends to go to a place of judgment. And with judgment comes shame. You start thinking, 'What's wrong with me that I can't have it the way they do?'
How does social media contribute to holiday stress?
Social media is supposed to help us connect. But the unintended consequences of social media include increased stress, isolation, and a decreased sense of belonging. It's had this weird, paradoxical effect of giving us this ongoing, never-ending opportunity to look in the mirror and compare ourselves to others. We're constantly bombarded through our phones, with young people being particularly vulnerable to the pressures of social media.
As an adolescent, you're figuring out who you are and where you fit in. It's a time when friendships are very important and meaningful, and you begin to build relationships outside of your family. Today, teens are also being asked to manage these social media messages about what is cool and not cool, and you can't get away from it. You could escape it 40 years ago. You could go home and take a break from whatever drama was going on at school, or what a classmate wore to class and what you didn't.
As human beings, we naturally want to find where we feel in, instead of out, where we belong and feel connected. The holidays add another layer of that, with strong messages that circulate around us for months in advance.
What are some tips that can help people cope with these and other holiday stressors?
- Determine your values: Step back and think intentionally about what you want the holidays to represent. Who do you want to be in relation to the holidays? What kind of values do you want to connect to? Once you make that determination, you can behave in accordance with those values.
- Act on your values: Behaving in ways that are consistent with your values is more important than making comparisons or judgments. Thanksgiving, for example, is all about being thankful for what you have. And there are lots of activities around Thanksgiving that wouldn't require spending a ton of money. Maybe on that day, you can take a walk in nature in order to contemplate or spend time appreciating what you have. If you're missing family members, why not do a Friendsgiving? Enjoy food and company and embrace the fact that you're a ragtag team of people spending time together. Or, go out and volunteer. If you're feeling that you're not receiving, why not do the opposite and do some giving?
- Avoid compare and despair: Have self-compassion. You can compare, but you don't have to add in the layer of judgment. If someone's reality is different than yours, that's OK! Stop "shoulding" all over yourself, and stop using damaging or punishing language. Instead of saying, 'I should do this,' or 'I must do that,' you could try, 'I preferably should.' Be mindful of your own mental chatter and the automatic tendency to go toward punishing language.
- Make connections: Focus on creating space for belonging or acceptance. Find places where you can receive support, but also give support in return. Reach out to others. Think about worth, value, and appreciation versus the enemies of comparison, judgment, shaming, blaming, and pushing people away.
- Take stock: Take an inventory of what your individual sources of stress are because it's different for everybody. Ask yourself: If I could change one or two things to feel better, what would they be? Do some active problem solving. If you lost a loved one, for example, celebrate that person's life, or change up what might have been a holiday routine with that person. Make room for it to not be a happy time -; it's OK if it's not a happy time.