Deck the Halls or Bah Humbug? Tips for Managing the Holidays
Ready or not, the holidays are here. Advertisers, retailers, and the Hallmark Channel proclaim it’s the most wonderful time of the year — complete with parties, engagement rings, and luxury cars adorned with giant red bows. But, what if the holidays aren’t one of your favorite things? What if you don’t like being told how you should feel?
“The push to be happy during the holidays is a microcosm of the impact that media has on us all of the time,” said Andy Smith, interim associate director for Clinical Services in the Georgia Tech Counseling Center. “We get a really concentrated dose of it during the holiday season. We are inundated with messages that it’s holiday time, and it should be great, and we should all be happy and enjoying ourselves.”
Smith said that people often enter this time of year with very high expectations that are also unrealistic.
“We start with a big setup right from the beginning, expecting that this will be the best time of the year,” he said. “Often, it doesn’t live up to that expectation. The reality is these are not happy and joyful times for everyone.”
The holidays can be filled with a lot of important memories going back to childhood. It’s a time when many people remember loved ones who have died or people who are ill and are no longer able to participate in the holidays the way they used to.
“It’s perfectly normal to feel a range of emotions during this time, particularly if you have difficult memories,” Smith said. “Maybe a spouse, parent, sibling, grandparent or close friend is no longer here. We usually associate the holidays with those relationships and memories. The season can bring painful memories and suffering to the forefront.”
Smith said people should allow themselves room to accommodate those memories and feelings. He said it’s important to be strategic when approaching the holidays because, in addition to bringing up sad memories, the holidays can shake up our daily routine.
“As humans, we are creatures of habit, and our routines usually serve us well,” he said. “The holidays are a recipe for breaking those routines: We are off work for days at a time. We are going to multiple holiday parties, family gatherings, and other social events. We’re eating a lot more carbohydrates, sugar, and fat.”
Because alcohol consumption often accompanies social gatherings, Smith said he reminds his clients that alcohol is a depressant and can affect a person’s mood. He also notes that sleep patterns and exercise routines are often disrupted during the holidays.
“The first step in being strategic is to acknowledge the likelihood that changes in your routine will occur during the holidays,” he said. The second step is to plan ahead.
“Maintain habits that are important — diet, exercise, and sleep — as much as we can. Anticipate disruptions to those habits.”
Smith’s third suggestion is to be realistic about what we can accomplish during the holidays.
“Some people will get invited to multiple holiday gatherings. It’s OK to say no. We don’t have to go to every single thing we’re invited to,” he said. “If you go to five parties in one night, are you really fully present at any of them? As soon as you get there, you start planning your exit strategy for the next one. That’s a recipe for stress and not enjoying any of them,” he said.
On the other hand, what if you did not get invited to any parties? Or, what if your family lives in another state or country and you cannot visit them for the holidays?
“We have a lot international students on campus. Their families and primary social networks may be halfway around the world and are not with them during the holidays,” Smith said. “For others, they may be estranged from their family or, for whatever reason, they may be isolated and alone.”
Smith’s advice for anyone who is alone during the holidays is to look for other ways to connect.
“For people who are affiliated with a church or religious community, the holidays can be a great time to seek connections through those venues,” he said. “It’s also a good time to volunteer or engage in service. It’s a good way to give if you don’t have a lot of financial resources.”
And no matter what your situation, Smith also suggests creating a schedule for yourself including exercising, reading, or other activities to fill the days. For those who may have existing mental health concerns, such as depression or anxiety, Smith says the holidays can be a good time to reach out to your therapist or seek professional support because this time can be especially stressful.
For the Georgia Tech community, the Counseling Center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday until Dec. 21. The center will be closed for the holiday break, and the after-hours counselor can be reached by calling 404-894-2575.