Community Health Systems, Inc.

How to Survive, and Even Thrive, During the Holidays

This blog post was written by Lauren Rick, APSW, MSW, Therapist at the Beloit Area and Darlington Area Community Health Centers.

silhouette of a man walking through a snow-covered city in a heavy snowstorm, black and white photo

Let’s face it, the holiday season can be extremely stressful. From planning dinners, entertaining, shopping, traffic woes, gift giving, way too many plans, traveling, crowds – it’s a wonder we get through it. We are here to help you survive the Holidays. 

There are ways to make the Holiday season (which includes Thanksgiving and New Year’s) bearable, and even enjoyable. It just takes learning to let go a little bit in our expectations, accepting situations for what they are, and being present-not just physically, but mentally and spiritually as well.

First, one of our biggest challenges as human beings is to manage our expectations. Not only of ourselves, but of others. Perfectionist thinking frequently sets us up for failure (and exhaustion). When we don’t meet our own expectations, we can feel useless, inadequate, and unworthy. It takes a toll on our self-esteem and contributes to feeling depressed as well as heightening anxiety. In trying to accomplish all things we feel we need to do to have everything “perfect”, we put incredible amounts of stress on ourselves. High stress levels take a toll not only on our mental health, but our physical health as well. Do Christmas Cards really need to be handmade, with the addresses written in calligraphy? Think of Martha Stewart, or any home decorating show. Is that reality? How about trying only one idea, instead of 10? Ditch the expectations of yourself. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and no one needs to know that you used the computer program to do the calligraphy address labels for the cards.

Second, society sets a lot of expectations for all of us, and if we don’t do them, we don’t fit in- not unlike wearing the wrong brand of sneakers in grade school then being bullied for it. Think about how these expectations are generated: A commercial for a brand of turkey shows a perfect family-dress, manners, happy-around a perfectly set and decorated table with lots of food. Mom is shown presenting the perfectly roasted turkey. What’s the subliminal message? If you buy our turkey, your Thanksgiving will be like just like the commercial. Think about what the reality is: It might be the perfect table, until the 2 year old has a melt down and dumps his gravy on grandma’s heirloom tablecloth… It helps to remember that the commercial is there for a reason-for the company to profit by selling more of the product advertised in the “homespun” commercial.

Our expectations of those we love can be unrealistic and unspoken. How many times have you been mad at your spouse or significant other on a holiday because you’re doing chores and they are watching football, or out shopping, and you are stuck with everything? You never asked them to help, and you are now resentful because they aren’t helping. They aren’t mind readers! How to avoid conflict? Communicate. Ask for help. Don’t go it alone. It helps to remember that not everyone who is helping is going to do it to your standards. If someone vacuums, and doesn’t move all the furniture, let it go and don’t discourage the person helping you by criticizing the job they are doing. If someone offers to help, accept it, and give them a task to do. You are taking a load off yourself, and they feel better contributing.

Giving up expectations can go a long way in accepting situations as they are. “It is what it is” can really help you to let go of what is going on around you, instead of being frustrated. For instance, when you leave to run an errand, you can count on the roads being crowded, long lines to deal with, even at the convenience store on the corner. We have two choices, accept the situation as is, letting go of the frustration and anger, or continue to stew about it, which makes your mood, anger, anxiety even worse. The key is that the situation is not going to change regardless of how you respond to it. If you are having a hard time with frustration and/or anxiety, take a moment to take a deep breath, or tell yourself to find something to focus on that makes you happy, such as cute children, holiday decorations or music while waiting.

Finally, let’s focus on being present. Being present has nothing to do with beautifully wrapped boxes or bags with bows on them. It means allowing yourself to be fully immersed in what task you are doing, or what emotion you’re feeling. It means really paying attention to the world around you with all your senses. You are focused in the here and now, not distracted or mentally absent. It becomes a way to handle any problem, any distraction, any stressor. Everything else fades away, clearing mental clutter, helping you to feel grounded and peaceful.

Examples of not being present: Thinking about what you need to do tomorrow…how ugly Aunt Jane’s dress is, how loud the conversation is, or that you would rather be somewhere else. Happy parents with daughter lightning candles in menorah at dining table while celebrating Hanukkah at home.

Being present can help you truly enjoy the gatherings, the moments, the wonder of these seasons. Experience the lights by noticing how they twinkle and change color, the shadows created by spotlights, the reflections of the colors from the decorations on the snow. The beauty of tree branches covered by snow and white lights. During gatherings, look around, look at the faces around you, relatives, friends, even strangers. Really savor the moment. It might be a long time before you see a loved one again. When you are present, you are completely focused on what you are doing at that moment, really getting into it and the feeling can really lift your spirits by giving you an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.

Smiles given and received go a long way in brightening a mood. For some, the smile you give them might be the only one they get that day. What a gift to give someone, and it doesn’t cost a dime!

Here are some survival tips to help us get through the Holiday season:

1- Accept your feelings. Acknowledge sadness. Allow the emotions to pass through you and remember they will change. If you are tearful, don’t hold it back, it will pass.  Be as compassionate to yourself as you would to a loved one or friend.

2- Maintain healthy habits. Try to stay on track with daily routines, making time for sleep, exercise and eating properly. Don’t allow yourself to become exhausted. However, don’t beat yourself up for having an extra cookie or treat (or a few). It’s okay to splurge now and then. If you are at an event, choose which one or two items you might have a bit more of, rather than all of them.

3- Set boundaries. It’s okay to say no-to hosting and attending events. Set limits on spending for gifts and holiday related expenses. It’s ok to limit the amount of time you spend with relatives and others that you are uncomfortable around. Its also very important to set a boundary for yourself to not discuss things that you don’t want to: politics, questions regarding personal matters or health, or gossip about others. If someone starts a conversation you don’t want to have, tell them politely you would rather not talk about it. If they persist, change the subject. If they continue to pursue, politely excuse yourself and walk away. We can all get along if we choose to communicate with respect and grace instead of anger and rudeness. Portrait of man holding phone for Christmas, happy asian smiling and looking at camera celebrating new year sitting at home in living room near Christmas tree, using smartphone.

4- Make time to connect. Connect with yourself through self-care. Connect with loved ones who have passed through a family tradition or a personal remembrance ritual. It’s ok to grieve, and there is no timeline for it. Remember that your loved one wants you to be happy and wants you to enjoy the holidays.

5- If you are in therapy, stay engaged in therapy. The holidays can increase depression, triggers, and bring up difficult emotions. Keeping your appointments can help you work through these problems.

6- Practice mindfulness- try to stay in the moment, using all of your senses. We are all so focused on our internal to-do list-that we are not aware of the amazing world around us. Stop to take a moment and take it all in. Check out the below video from Jessica Cullen, Therapist at Beloit Area Community Health Center. 

7- Don’t rely on drugs and alcohol to get you through the season. Being able to escape is inviting, but once you sober up the problem or situation is still there. Use mindfulness, paced breathing, time outside, music, or a relaxation app to relax.

8- BREATHE! Instead of breathing our normal shallow breaths, how about taking a deep breath or two? How to do it? Breathe in, from the diaphragm, slowly inhaling through your nose, and slowly exhaling through your mouth. Slowly push the air out fully, feeling the release in your body, especially in your head, neck, shoulders, back and arms. Slow and steady is the key. Don’t rush it. Even one deep breath can help turn around an anxious or angry thought before it escalates. It helps lower our heart rate and our blood pressure as well.

9- Cope Ahead. Expect the unexpected. Maybe an unplanned guest with a gift. Perhaps have a generic gift on hand, such as a small package of cookies, etc. If you burn the rolls, air out the house and don’t mention it, and don’t beat yourself up about it. The loss of a few extra carbohydrates won’t hurt anyone. Use positive affirmations: “I’m doing the best I can”, I’m only human”, “I can cope with this.” Another way to cope ahead is to plan what to do when you are at a gathering were some of the invitees are people you clash with. It’s perfectly fine to make an appearance for a short time and leave. When people ask, it’s ok to tell them you have another event or gathering to attend as well. You can also give the host a heads up before the event that you will only be staying a short time. If you are attending with a spouse, significant other or friend, have a signal you both can use to indicate that you are in a uncomfortable conversation or situation and that you need support. Communication and planning can really help control the stress of attending social events.  Close-up of African little girl getting present from her parents for holiday

10- Contribute. Give a gift, volunteer, do something thoughtful and surprising for someone else. Gifts don’t have to be monetary, it can be a gift of time. Benefits: generating positive emotions, feel good helping someone else, find meaning to your life and gain valuable perspective. 

11- Laugh! Tell stories, dad jokes, funny memories of loved ones past. Just make sure that the stories you tell about others are not embarrassing to them or something they are ashamed about. We want to lift each other up.

12- Prioritize -cut your activities, social engagements and to-do list to a manageable level. Do the things and see the people that you really want to. Remember that you don’t have to give every single person in your phone contact list a present. Set a budget and stick to it. 

13- Practice gratitude. At the end of the day, think of 3 things you were grateful for. Be creative on the days you are in a good mood. It’s even ok that you are grateful for something that didn’t happen-like having only one unexpected guest instead of 3. f you want to write them down, you can, otherwise just taking a moment to mindfully ponder them is just as good. 

14- If you find yourself alone for the holiday, create your own tradition, whether it is watching a favorite show, listening to music, calling a friend or two. Have a special treat or meal. Volunteering to help with community meals works wonders to brighten spirits. Reach out to an elderly neighbor. Or stay home and enjoy the day off!

15- Most importantly, remember: It’s just one day! Remember, “I will get through this!”, and you will!


Hilary Jacobs Hendel,

Daniel Gillison, Jr.,

Colleen O’Day,

You can schedule an appointment with Lauren at Beloit Area or Darlington Area Community Health Center by calling 608-361-0311. Lauren accepts most insurances and is accepting new patients.