The holiday season sometimes comes with an emotional punch that can knock over even the healthiest of us. But, with a little bit of preparation, we can set ourselves up to enjoy our best holiday season yet! The basics of self-care around the holidays are vital to our well-being, so first we’ll take a look at these foundational basics before finishing by learning about healing the deeper roots of emotional baggage which we might be unknowingly carrying so that we can find more emotional freedom and joy this holiday season.
Minding The Basics: Holiday Self-Care 101
- Mind your food, beverages and medications. What we take in affects our mood and overall wellness. Give yourself a leg up by keeping the blood sugar stable by eating regularly, keeping sugary foods to a minimum, taking any prescribed medications on-schedule, and by moderating your intake of alcoholic beverages.
- Mind your movement. Exercise is extremely helpful when it comes to managing stress, with cardio having great stress reducing, anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects.
- Mind your time. The holidays can be packed full of time with friends and family. While this can be wonderful for the extrovert, it can cause overwhelm or irritability for the introvert. Do your best to maintain a healthy balance of time according to your personality style and needs regarding personal time. Remember, it’s okay to say “no” if that’s what you need!
- Mind your sleep. Few things can drag a person down physically or emotionally like oversleeping or undersleeping. Consistent sleep quality and routine sleep and wake times can help you weather the holidays like a champ.
- Mind your joy. When our schedule gets full, we can neglect what we love most and what fills our metaphorical cup. Make time to engage in self-care, whether that be with something as simple as a hot bath, coffee with a trusted friend, prayer or a favorite hobby.
- Mind your connection. If the holidays are tough, we might find ourselves isolating from the people who are actually life-giving to us or even hanging around people who aren’t. Find a supportive friend with whom you can mutually provide support during the stressful season or make other plans for staying healthfully connected. Conversely, make sure to hold your personal boundaries with those for whom you may consider to be toxic or unsafe people.
Beyond the Basics: Leave the Landmines Behind
There are several common “landmines” which we can find ourselves navigating during the holidays. Let’s talk about the points to reflect upon so that we might be prepared internally for this wonderful time of year.
I invite you to grab some paper or your journal and use it to tackle one of these landmines today. If for some reason you find that the journaling is becoming emotionally overwhelming, take a break, allow yourself some deep breaths, and try a different task for the time being. Also, choosing to work through a landmine with a trusted friend, mentor or therapist can be a great opportunity for growth and connection.
Landmine #1: The holiday season can bring up memories and emotions from the past which you would rather not experience.
Perhaps the holidays are hard because they have almost always been a stressful time for you in the past, often full of upsetting memories and disappointments. Emotions are high and family drama can be amplified during this time of year. We will often keep pushing forward, not wanting to dwell on the past, but these old feelings can linger and pull us down during the holidays; while our minds might be “over it”, our hearts still aren’t.
Journaling Exercise #1: Pick one memory from a past holiday time that still brings up some internal distress. Describe what happened as objectively as you can. What was your part in this, if any? How did what occurred make you feel at the time? Did you feel alone at the time or have other loved ones with whom to share this difficult experience?
Reflect for a moment on God’s presence there, that he saw it all and he knows your heart and every emotion felt. What feelings are coming up for you now as you reflect on this? Take a few minutes to tell God whatever you might like him to know. This could range from anger at him for not stopping what happened to gratitude for him never leaving you and being compassionately connected and present in a difficult time, anything in between. There is no right or wrong answer here.
You have permission to feel whatever it is you feel; take some deep breaths if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed. If you are willing, consider if there is anyone that you might be ready to forgive (yourself and God included) so that you may be enabled to heal and move on. Remember that forgiveness is a deliberate decision to let go of bitterness, resentment or vengeance towards a person, whether or not it makes sense or whether or not the person deserves it. It does not necessarily mean that what they did is okay, that you must “forget it” or that you need to re-engage in a relationship with them. It will take discernment to determine how to move forward in relationship with anyone involved, and you may certainly choose to examine these ideas at a later time.
Landmine #2: The holidays remind you that your loved ones are gone.
This one can be so impactful and often catches us off our guard. Each friend or family member occupies a unique role in our lives: encourager, peacemaker, jokester, father, nurturer, etc., and each has contributed something unique to our holiday experience, and our life in general. If that person is gone from our life for any reason, the longing for that person and the role he or she played can be deeply felt this time of year.
Being prepared ahead of time that the holidays can bring up a sense of loss or longing for that person can help us be emotionally ready for this time of year and allow us to honor this person’s meaning in our lives as well as nurture ourselves through those difficult feelings when they arise. While we often feel the loss of someone whom we’ve lost this year, we often may find ourselves grieving other loved ones from the past as well due to the dynamic nature of grief.
Journaling Exercise #2: Notice what emotions may be coming up for you as you answer these questions and try to be present with them as they rise and fall in intensity. Who won’t be here during the holidays this year? What role did he or she play in your life, or what do you miss about them? What role did this person play among your family or friends, and how might the season look differently without them? How were they supportive or life-giving to you? Had you felt wronged by them or vice versa, and how? Do you need to forgive him or her for anything or release anything to God that you have been holding onto in relation to them?
You might consider taking some time at the end of this exercise and thank God for this person’s role in your life or for how God has worked through this relationship in some positive way, even if it is as a result of challenges this person created in your life that you overcame. Finally, you may consider doing something special during a holiday gathering as a memorial and take time to reflect upon what this person has meant in your lives as a family or group of friends.
Landmine #3: Your unacknowledged, underlying expectations for the season aren’t met.
This can be one of the trickier landmines because it can be so subtle and is often experienced as an overarching sense of disappointment or sadness during this time of the year that is hard for one to put their finger on. I believe this is because we are actually in grief, either longing for the holidays of years past or some dream of what we ideally would like the holidays to be like. For example, it could be something as overt as feeling disappointed because you’re used to having a big family gathering full of laughter and connection but this year you won’t be able to get home because you have to work. Or it could be something more subtle like finding yourself still unmarried and not having the partner and family you thought you would by now with whom to celebrate the holidays.
Journaling Exercise #3: By working to bring these expectations to our conscious mind, we can give ourselves the time and space to grieve the loss of things past, as well as what we wish for our current lives so that we can fully live in the present moment and embrace all that there is to offer now, free of the weighty emotional baggage.To help discern what some of these unacknowledged underlying expectations or hopes might be, consider these questions. If a miracle occurred and you had the perfect holiday season, what would you be doing on the days leading up to and including Christmas and New Year’s (think holiday traditions, decorations, meals, etc.) and with whom would you be doing these things? What would the quality of the relationship be like? How would those interactions feel to you? Notice how you feel as you think of this ideal scenario.
Now answer the same questions as above while you anticipate your holiday season based on what you know of your family dynamics and past holiday experiences. Notice how you feel thinking about the scenario that is perhaps closer to the reality of your current holiday season.
Take a look at each scenario and notice how they are similar and different. To the extent that these two scenarios are the same, take time to thank God for all of the ways he has blessed you in this time of year. To the extent that they are different, give yourself time and space to journal about the sense of grief or loss of not being where you wished you were, not having the community you wished you had, or not having the relationship with your family you’d like, for example. You may invite God into the feelings that arise, finding comfort in the truth that the God who loves you and pursues your heart knows and cares about your feelings and has a good plan for you.
I truly hope that you are able to spend some time working on each of these landmines to prepare your heart and mind for the holidays so that you can have your best one yet! Blessings and Merry Christmas to you!