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Coping with Challenging Holiday Emotions

Last updated: November 30, 2023

Do healthful and kind things for yourself, and know that you’ll get through it, and everything passes. Eventually, it’ll be OK.

Kristi Skrinska, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, ThedaCare Behavioral Health

Think of the holidays as a tale of two seasons. For some, this time may evoke feelings of joy and anticipation. For others, it can bring on feelings of stress, sorrow, or loneliness. And for most of us, it’s a combination of both.

If you have mixed — or negative — feelings about the holidays, you’re far from alone. A 2014 National Alliance for Mental Illness survey found that 64% of people with mental illness say the holidays make their condition worse.

Messages from movies, songs, and ads can reinforce the idea that there’s only one way to experience the holidays, but that’s simply not true. We caught up with Kristi Skrinska, a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner with ThedaCare Behavioral Health, to get a more balanced view on what the holidays can look like.

Skrinska discussed some common feelings and situations can arise during the holidays and ways to cope.

Stress and Perfectionism

Most everyone is familiar with the stress that can come along with the holidays. It can stem from many causes: overspending, a desire to buy the perfect gift or make a gourmet meal, or the expectation of spending time with people you may find difficult.

Sometimes when you’re in the moment, it’s hard to see clearly what you’re experiencing and to escape it, Skrinska says. But it’s important to remain mindful and manage expectations.

“We think that we have to go to all of the holiday gatherings and make the house perfect, and really, that’s just not true,” Skrinska says.

Instead, decide what’s really important for you and your family. Both the Grinch and Charlie Brown know that what matters most doesn’t come from a store.

“When I think back to Christmases that have been special for me, or holiday gatherings, it’s not the presents and it’s not the perfect food, and it’s not the cleanest house,” Skrinska says. “It’s being with family. It’s those warm feelings, those experiences that we can create for each other.”

Substance Use Disorder

The holidays can present a particular challenge for people experiencing substance use disorder. Not only is this a time of excess — of both drink and food — but there’s pressure to put yourself in situations that could prove challenging.

“It can be really easy to fall back into those old habits and patterns just to deal with big feelings,” Skrinska says.

If you’re the person struggling with substance use disorder, it’s OK to decide to forgo gatherings. If your loved one is in recovery, support them as well. Let them know that it’s all right for them to stay back and that you can spend time with them in other ways.

If you do decide to go to gatherings, it’s a good idea to set boundaries.

“You have to protect your space, protect your mental health, and know what you’re walking into. Do some mental rehearsal,” Skrinska says. “It’s OK to say, ‘I really care about you, but I don’t want to talk about that right now. Let’s talk about something else.’”

Grief

For those who have lost someone — whether recently or a long time ago — the holidays can bring on tender feelings. You might experience sorrow remembering happier times of the past or feel that sense of loss more intensely.

“Grief is sneaky,” Skrinska says. “It’s not linear, and it can sneak up on us and hit us when we really least expect it.”

If you’re experiencing grief, be gentle with yourself, and prioritize self-care. Lean on your faith community if you’re a religious person, or reach out to friends and loved ones. You can also create your own ritual, such as lighting a candle for your loved one or hanging a special ornament on your tree, Skrinska says.

“It’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to miss someone. It’s OK to reflect on those good memories you had,” she says.

And if you’re helping someone who’s grieving, offer your hand. Show up for them in ways that they need. That may mean simply being present for them.

Loneliness

Experts say loneliness is an epidemic. Earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called for raising awareness around the “public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country.”

The holidays can make feelings of loneliness all the more pronounced. It’s easy to look around you and think everyone except you has connection all figured out. Of course, that’s not the case.

“Even in the midst of people … we can feel very lonely because we’re not in a space where we can connect with people, whether it’s our own self-doubts or whether it’s grief or addiction,” Skrinska says.

To help with this, it’s a good idea to spend some time in self-reflection, she says. From there, determine what’s right for you. It may be something small. Think coffee with a friend versus giant family gathering.

“Studies are showing that even small connections with people help our loneliness,” Skrinska says. “So, saying hello and good morning to your mail carrier, or saying thank you to the person who bags your groceries. All of those little things help.”

The Last Word

Take care of yourself and those around you this holiday season, and you can’t go wrong.

“Be kind to yourself. Be kind to other people,” Skrinska says. “And stop doom-scrolling on Facebook. Really avoid social media if it makes you anxious and sad. Avoid substance use. Do healthful and kind things for yourself, and know that you’ll get through it, and everything passes. Eventually, it’ll be OK.”

ThedaCare offers many types of behavioral health care, including group therapy and Behavioral Health Walk-in Care at ThedaCare Physicians-Neenah.

Tags: anxiety behavioral health depression Grief Holiday Stress Loneliness Substance Use Disorder

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