Updated: Jul 26
As I walked through the grocery store in early September, I noticed Halloween decorations and oversized bags of candy displayed proudly by the check-out lines. Even as someone who loves Halloween, it seemed a bit early to me. But this is not new. Every year it seems like just as summer is ending the decorations go out for Halloween, signaling the start of the holiday season. Soon to follow will be turkeys and gingerbread houses, followed by New Years' banners and hats. And every year at this time, I catch myself remarking that we are moving too fast and looking too far ahead. Regardless of how you feel about the holiday season, there is no denying that these reminders make it hard to ignore that the end of the year is approaching.
This is usually a time when we start to realize how quickly the year has passed. Or, in some years, we make note of how painfully slow the time has gone. This is a time of reflection and preparation–we review what we have accomplished, or what we believe we should have accomplished, and we start to think of what we want to do in those last three months before the new year starts. As a therapist, I frequently hear my clients express dread regarding the upcoming holidays. Many people are feeling strained financially and worrying about how they will make it through the rest of the year. Others feel the pressure of upcoming family gatherings and anxiety about how they will face certain triggers. But in addition to these concerns, I often hear clients ask why? “Why am I feeling so down during a time when everyone else seems to be celebrating? Why do I dread this season when I feel like I should be enjoying it?” The truth is that despite what the media may try to convince us, the winter/holiday months are often characterized by increases in seasonal depression, loneliness, and family conflict. Of course, it’s not all bad. But I think the experience of feeling sad or alone during the holidays is arguably more universal than the Hallmark idea of the perfect family gathered around the fire.
The winter season represents a break in the normal routine for many. This break from the norm can create more challenges in engaging in self-care and creating boundaries for alone time. Children are out of school which can lead to increased conflict and stress for parents and families. This time of year usually comes with more social obligations, which can further add to an already overwhelmed schedule. In addition to changes in the routines this time of year, many people are feeling the loneliness of being separated or cut off from their families. This time of year also typically brings up grief for anyone who has experienced a loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship. You might be wondering why it’s important to acknowledge the reality of what the holidays feel like for so many. Because continuing to buy into the idealized images that are portrayed through the media creates more loneliness and disconnection. It leads us to feel like we are the only ones suffering and adds to the isolation that this season can already create. So how can we prepare ourselves for the variety of emotions that might come up this time of year? And how do we have compassion for those feelings without comparing ourselves to the ideas we have in our heads about what this season should look like?
We can start by challenging unrealistic expectations for the holidays. Permitting ourselves to feel our feelings without judgment, although difficult, can alleviate some of the shame that may come when we notice ourselves lacking excitement or feeling down this time of year. Although it’s something most of us recognize on a rational level, it’s important to remember that what we see on Instagram or in the media is not an accurate representation of the human experience. So if we see one of our colleagues or classmates posting videos celebrating with their perfect, happy, smiling family surrounded by gifts and extravagant food, we have to acknowledge that this is a snapshot of a joyful moment and not a representation of nuances of family relationships. If you find yourself struggling to keep this in focus, taking breaks or even unfollowing certain accounts that trigger excessive comparison can be helpful. If you find yourself feeling alone or struggling emotionally, reach out. This might look like calling your best friend to catch up or scheduling a session with your therapist. Regardless of who you choose to reach out to, feeling a connection with someone can help take us out of our thoughts temporarily and give us perspective.
We can also cope with this season by practicing our self-soothing and self-care rituals. While self-care has become a pop-psychology buzzword in recent years, there is truly so much power in creating intentional moments to respond to and take care of our emotions. Self-care this time of year may include saying “no” to certain social engagements or interactions. Ultimately, we have to make decisions that honor our needs, regardless of who we may disappoint. Possibly the most powerful thing we can remind ourselves, as the weather starts to get colder and the days begin to get shorter, is that all seasons, like emotions, are temporary. Whether the holiday season is something that you look forward to or dread, it will pass eventually, and a new season will begin. Reminding ourselves of the temporary nature of everything is so important when we are struggling with our feelings in the present moment.