“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” is the timeless Christmas song by Andy Williams. It creates a beautiful picture of the perfect holiday season, where everyone is caroling and roasting marshmallows, where hearts are glowing. Everyone is telling you to be of good cheer! Doesn’t that sound lovely? This is the lyrical version of a Hallmark Christmas movie, where many people would prefer to spend their holidays, because reality is not nearly as idyllic.
The reality of the holiday season is that this time of year may involve singing marshmallows, and glowing hearts, and it can also bring feelings of sadness, loneliness, and stress. I have encountered many people who feel they are doing something wrong if they don’t feel “happy” during the holiday season. It’s easy to feel like you’re a Grinch in Whoville when you can’t embrace the fantasy that we’re all supposed to be cheerful and jolly for weeks. I’m here to tell you that it’s okay not to buy into the myth. Let’s look at the reality of the holiday season.
Why might we feel tired, sad, lonely, and stressed? First, the days get shorter, and we have less daylight, which means we feel tired earlier in the evening. With the cold weather and darker evenings, people who may exercise by walking, running, or riding their bikes may be less inclined to do so, mainly if snow and ice exist. Holiday parties often mean over-indulging on alcohol and foods high in sugar and fat, meaning that our bodies are more inclined to feel worse the next day. Then we add in the emotional challenges of this time of year. The holiday season causes many of us to think about loved ones who have died, and this naturally brings a tinge of sadness to the events where those people are no longer present. If this is the first few seasons after a loved one has died, you may even feel that you can’t celebrate at all, and that’s not uncommon.
When it comes to stress there are many reasons to feel stressed during this time of year. There are tremendous financial pressures in our hyper-consumer-focused society. Children and teens often wish for expensive toys and electronics and parents want to provide for those wishes. Many people choose to spend what they don’t have to see the look of joy on their kids’ faces. And then we come to the parties. The outfits, food, gifts and all the aspects of hosting and attending parties can be both fun and exhausting. Let’s face it, family get-togethers may bring more drama than delight at times. With different political, religious, and social views, family celebrations can create tension as quickly as contentment.
So, what are we to do? First, let’s accept that the idea of this being the most beautiful time of year is a myth. Maybe you’ll have weeks of unending bliss, but rather than feel let down when that doesn’t happen, let’s instead embrace the idea that we can create some beautiful moments during this time of year. How can we do that?
Get quality sleep. If you’re tired and you can go to sleep earlier, then do so! Intentionally turn off screens 2 hours before going to sleep to help your brain transition to sleep.
Exercise, exercise, exercise! If you can’t exercise outdoors, do something indoors. There are many exercise videos or suggestions online for people of all ages and abilities. There are so many benefits of regular exercise, but the one to focus on here is dopamine, which helps improve our mood.
Recognize that you may be missing a loved one who has died. Feel sad, angry, or lonely and express those feelings: cry, talk to a friend or therapist, journal, or write a letter to the person you miss. Then, focus on the loved ones around you and feel the joy and love you have by being fully present with them.
Focus on connection rather than perfection. Take the time to intentionally connect with people you care about this season. This may mean simplifying the party or holiday dinner so you can spend time eating, playing games, or watching movies with your family and friends.
Give to others. It really is better to give than receive! Volunteer at a shelter or foodbank or your church (see Catholic Charities’ website for lots of volunteer opportunities; insert link here). Or bake cookies and share with your co-workers or neighbors. Make sock and hand warmer bundles for the homeless person you pass to work. Find ways to brighten someone else’s day. When we get outside of ourselves, our brain feels rewarded and we can alleviate our feelings of loneliness and isolation, even if for a short while.
Accept your family members for who they are and take responsibility for your part in the drama. You know that your uncle will be prone to make some political remark to stir the pot and that you can quickly come back with a witty retort and then everyone is thinking, “Oh boy, here we go again!” Make an intention to refrain from engaging certain people on certain topics if you know it’s not going to get anywhere and will only lead to tension and conflict. Change the subject, agree to disagree, or excuse yourself to get some fresh air if needed.
Finally, and most importantly, let’s focus on our beautiful Catholic tradition. The season of Advent begins on December 3rd and is the time we spend preparing for the birth of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. If we are preparing our hearts, then our focus will be on prayer and asking how we can fully receive the gift of Jesus into our lives. We can still participate in the parties, marshmallows, and caroling, but we can also slow down and remember that Jesus truly is the Reason for the Season. Take time to reflect and decide how you want to spend this holiday season; how can you put Jesus at the center of all you do?
Dr. Michelle Connor Harris
Executive Director, St. Raphael Counseling