While it often gets billed as the most wonderful time of the year, the holiday season isn’t always packed with cheer and good tidings. “The holidays are not a wonderful time filled with joy for everyone,” says Rachelle Bloksberg, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. For many, they can be a challenge — for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you just lost a loved one, or the idea alone of spending hours will your extended family stresses you out. Or maybe you just feel lonely; it happens.
However, opting out isn’t always an option. Even if you do manage to dodge family invites, there are still holiday gift lists to contend with, not to mention the decor, the commercials, and the constant music. So, off the bat, know that it’s totally fine to not be into the festivities this year (or any year, really). “Have compassion for yourself,” says Nicole Sbordone, LCSW, a clinical therapist in Arizona. “Try to reframe these events as celebrating good times with people you love and it’s a time to reconnect and catch up.”
With that in mind, we spoke to professionals about how to get through the holiday season with ease.
The scenario: You’re dreading all the socialization
Your uncle’s a blowhard, your brother-in-law loves to interrupt, or maybe the idea of spending a few hours with more than 10 people in an enclosed space gives you sensory overload. Whatever the reason you’re anxious about socializing — we see you, introverts — it helps to have a game plan in place.
For starters, return to the buddy system and arrive with your partner, sibling, or friend. “Go with someone you know,” says Sbordone. “That way, you feel less uncomfortable around people you don’t know.” If the event is more open-ended (think: a happy hour-style celebration) agree on set times to arrive and leave.
Meet the Experts
Rachelle Bloksberg , MA, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California.
Nicole Sbordone , LCSW, is a clinical therapist in Arizona.
If you’re in a more inflexible situation, like a long dinner, stay in tune with how you’re feeling, and sneak out for alone time when you need it. “If things get too overwhelming, go to a quiet room to lie down, sit in your car, go for a walk — maybe with a dog or a child — or listen to some calming music,” says Bloksberg. “Anything that gets you away from the amount of sensory input can keep you from overloading your nervous system.”
The scenario: You just lost someone close to you
Whether you had a death in your family or are estranged from a friend, the holiday cheer can seem painfully off-key. If you can’t take the caroling or constant stream of holiday music, that’s a-okay. “Have compassion and patience with yourself,” says Sbordone. If you don’t feel up for a holiday party, don’t go. Listen to what you need to feel comfortable.
That said, grieving is a process, so it won’t be the same every day. If you’re up for it, “begin coping by starting to focus on how you want to carry that person with you,” says Bloksberg. “Instead of trying to avoid talking about your loved one, how do you want to remember them? What holiday stories do you want to pass on about them? How do you want to honor them?” She recommends starting a new tradition based on something you remember about them — maybe they loved to watch the claymation version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer or couldn’t finish a meal without having chocolate chip cookies for dessert. “Think about what would please them to see happening,” she says.
The scenario: Holiday shopping is causing financial anxiety
If holiday gifts for your family and friends are putting a dent in your budget — and causing you to worry — you’re not alone. “Holiday financial anxiety arises when tight budgets collide with loved ones’ gift expectations,” says Bloksberg. “Remember that those expectations are unreasonable. You get to decide how you will spend your hard-earned money.”
One way around it is to reframe what makes a good gift — after all, it’s possible to express yourself without having to break the bank. “You can show your love in other ways than with expensive gifts,” she says. “A box of homemade cookies or fudge can communicate your affection.” And, don’t forget, it’s okay just not to exchange gifts! Your family members might feel the same way you do.
The scenario: You’re stressed about your health
Not only is COVID-19 still among us, with new variants roaming around, but other concerns, like the flu and RSV, are on the rise this season. So, if you’re skittish about spending time with a large group of people, that’s understandable.
One option is to talk it out with your guests (or host) ahead of time. If so, focus on your feelings and reasons — keeping the word “you” out of the conversation and speaking only about yourself, says Bloksberg. For instance, she continues, you could say: “I have friends and family who are immunocompromised, so I wear a mask and get vaccinated to keep them safe. I would feel awful if I was the one who made them sick and they ended up in the hospital.”
Another option is to limit your exposure. “Set a time for when you’ll leave, so that way you feel you got a chance to attend but didn’t stay too long to make you feel uncomfortable,” Sbordone says. And worst case scenario, just RSVP no.
The scenario: You’re anticipating political talk
First, it’s inevitable. And how you handle it depends on the relationship you want to have. If you want to educate your cousin and stand up for yourself, explain why you’re concerned without being accusatory. Keep in mind, though, that “if you want a cordial relationship, the relationship can only be as deep as the other person allows,” says Bloksberg.
There’s also the option of avoiding conflict altogether. To do that, just steer the conversation away. “When they start to talk about a subject you know will lead down a path you don’t want to travel, you can switch the topic to something you know is important to them, like a hobby,” says Bloksberg. If they love knitting, ask about what designs they’re working on these days.
Ultimately, it’s important to celebrate the holidays in a way that feels right for you — whether that’s in the form of keeping peace at the family table, DIY-ing presents, or honoring a late friend.