Holiday Expectations: From Norman Rockwell to Just Plain Normal

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In the weeks leading up to the mid-winter holidays, it’s easy to get caught up in excitement. Hopes and goals for a fabulous holiday, replete with sumptuous foods, elegant and yet inviting home décor, and the right clothes for every occasion — we all get sucked in to one degree or another. For many people, however, the holidays cause significant stress, be it financial, familial or emotional. What do you do when your reality just can’t compete with your expectations?

You may be asking yourself, “Why can’t I just lighten up and enjoy the holidays?” It’s easy to layer on feelings of guilt, as if your emotions are the problem. Instead of falling into the guilt trap, let’s take a look at some good reasons why disappointment and sadness tend to bubble up during the holidays.

  • For people struggling to get sober and stay sober, the holidays are a minefield of challenges. Hopes and expectations regarding your ability to resist the myriad temptations during this stressful time can be a set up for resentment, stress and disappointment.
  • If you struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or other mental health issues, the holidays can be a time when disrupted schedules mean less sleep and more stress. These changes and challenges can lead to an increase in your symptoms in the midst of holiday festivities. In addition, shorter days and long periods of darkness can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that hits hard at this time of year.
  • Grief, loss and remembering loved ones during the holidays can also be a set up for feeling disappointment and sadness. It may feel like everyone else is “making merry” while you alone, remembering those no longer here with you.
  • More time spent indoors around other people can mean more colds and flus. Mental health and physical health are linked; your mood is impacted when you are fighting a cold or other illness. It’s hard to stay upbeat and energetic when you feel ill.
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What can you do to protect your sobriety, your mood and your finances during this stressful time of year? Here are a number of steps you can take to navigate the emotional challenges of the holidays:

  • Restrict your social schedule. Protect your precious down time and don’t commit to every opportunity and event. If you were physically ill, you’d cancel an engagement; give yourself permission to decline an invitation to prevent “dis-ease.”
  • Don’t judge yourself. Easy to say and difficult to practice, but letting go of judging your choices and behaviors is critical to reducing the stresses and disappointments at this time of year. If you choose to celebrate New Year’s Eve by sipping hot chocolate in your pajamas and going to bed by 9 p.m., so be it. Practice letting go of self-judgement and comparing yourself to others.
  • Build in outdoor activities as much as possible. Fresh air and time spent in nature (and remember, nature need not mean anything more elaborate than your own backyard, a city park or the local rail trail) can improve mental health and reduce stress, while stimulating the immune system. Use your lunch hour to take a brisk walk whenever possible.
  • Give back. If you are feeling low and struggling to get into the holiday spirit, try volunteering. Spending time giving back to your community can help you gain a new perspective or “get out of your own head” for a while.
  • You might relapse or fall off the wagon in other ways (overspending, binge eating or other behaviors). If you do, don’t beat yourself up, just get help. Go to a meeting or schedule an urgent visit with your therapist. Consider spending some time in an inpatient treatment facility for the holidays if that seems like the right plan for you.
  • Try connecting with a spiritual or religious community or, if you need more solitude, read inspirational or religious texts. For some people, daily readings bring a sense of peace and contentment that stays with them through the day.
  • Expect challenges. Your alcoholic uncle-in-law will probably say or do something that will trigger you at dinner. Not all difficulties are preventable, but how we cope can be a way to build self-esteem and feel competent. Expect that you will have tough times, bad moments or days, and feel strong, uncomfortable feelings. Perhaps feeling angry, sad or overwhelmed during the holidays is not part of the Normal Rockwell painting, but it is normal, expectable and nothing to judge yourself for.

Rather than putting pressure on yourself to be “perfect” during the holidays, experiment with feeling grateful for the good moments. Good feelings tend to be contagious and fertile – hopefully they will grow from practices into traditions that you and your family can enjoy this holiday season and many more.

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