There's an assumption that the holidays are a joyful time for all of us, which is certainly not the case, especially when grief is involved. The holiday season holds the potential to really spotlight loneliness. A season often associated with meaningful time with loved ones and celebrations can open the door to a lens of scarcity... more bluntly, a focus on everything "I don't have." Holidays can be especially difficult after the loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship. It may bring up old memories and a longing for a connection that is no longer possible. That being said, all is not lost. Here are some concrete ways to fight the holiday blues:
1) Increase your human interaction. This can be as in depth as planning a dinner party with friends or as simple as avoiding the self-check line and opting for an actual person. Some research shows that social exclusion activates the same parts of our brain as physical pain. We are hard-wired for connection and physical touch can be incredibly effective in helping meet that need. Maybe don't rush that next hug, focus on eye contact during conversations, and if you don't have access to loved ones, get a massage. Studies show that massage increases serotonin up to 30% as well as dopamine levels and is shown to decrease stress hormones. NOTE: Texting or emailing is not a suitable substitute for human interaction. Sharing space with another body is crucial to combating isolation.
2) Volunteer. It feels good to help others. More specifically, we often gain perspective by getting some distance from our own struggles and supporting another in theirs. This is also another great way to seek out meaningful human interaction. Why is that important? Refer to #1.
3) Foster Gratitude. Author and researcher Brenè Brown describes how the process of actively practicing gratitude can cultivate more joy in daily life. Simple ways to incorporate this are starting a gratitude journal or even setting an alarm on your phone periodically throughout the day to pause and reflect on the question "what am I grateful for?" And guess what the good news is? You don't even have to be able to answer the question, the act of searching for the answer alone fosters emotional intelligence. Gratitude also offers the positive effect of boosting serotonin and dopamine levels which help register social interactions as more enjoyable.
4) Practice Self-Compassion. Have you ever considered why it’s so easy for us to be kind, compassionate and loving to others, but not ourselves? Dr. Kristin Neff provides an excellent intro into the benefits of loving yourself, flaws and all, and how the daily practice of self-compassion actually allows you to better care for others as well. She also distinguishes between self-compassion and self-indulgence. Self-compassion invites us to be kind to ourselves while also holding ourselves accountable. The three concepts of self-compassion are:
1) Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement: The ability to be kind towards ourselves when we're suffering or fail rather than ignore our pain or put ourselves down.
2) Common Humanity vs. Isolation: The understanding that suffering is part and parcel with humanness. A helpful reminder that you are not alone in your pain.
3) Mindfulness vs. Overidentification: Holding a nonjudgmental awareness of our suffering allows us to actively choose how to navigate it rather than we swept away by it.
And if you're needing additional support, why wait until the new year to start (or continue) your counseling journey? Pro tip: most counselors have more availability in December due to client travels and obligations. It's actually an ideal time to make that call and schedule an appointment.
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brenè Brown
The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb