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Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA

How to Thrive Through the Holiday Season

For many people, the holiday season can be a time of struggle and emotional overwhelm. For those who have lost loved ones, holidays can be a painful anniversary marker, and exacerbate feelings of loneliness, grief, and sorrow.  Holiday traditions and rituals that are strongly associated with a deceased relative may become too difficult to hold to, leaving a grieving person bereft of the comfort and joy they experienced in the past.

For clients who are in a state of bereavement, encouraging them to create new rituals that honor the memory of a loved one can be healing. Inviting them to focus on a loved one’s strengths, hobbies, or causes that were close to their heart, can create opportunities for new traditions as well as new ways to stay connected to someone who is no longer physically present in their lives.

In addition, despite the inherent expectation and assumption that holidays will be spent with family, “home for the holidays” often doesn’t look like a Hallmark Card. It can be very triggering and unsettling to interact with people who have been historically unsafe, and continue to feel unsafe. After working hard to establish more protective boundaries, spending extended time with family can undermine a sense of progress, rekindling feelings of disempowerment, resentment, anger, or dread.

Given the pressure to go home for the holidays, many people deserve and need permission to safely and non-judgmentally process the options of either shortening or avoiding family visits that are toxic. It’s understandable that for some people it’s too emotionally uncomfortable to completely disconnect from extended family. In those cases, it’s worth exploring the strategies of setting limits or choosing to visit with “escape clauses” that provide an exit or excuse to leave if the gathering becomes negative, judgmental, or abusive.

Take the time during therapy sessions to assess how the holidays and upcoming family visits are impacting your clients’ emotional, psychological, and physical wellbeing. And keep in mind that even when the holiday season evokes positive feelings, the cumulative impact of widespread unrest and tragedies in the world, along with divisive politics, feeling marginalized, and economic stress, can certainly compromise our overall sense of wellbeing.  Strategies that emphasize limit-setting, boundaries, safety, self-care, and healthy connections are needed now more than ever!

Clinician’s Tips:

Here are additional suggestions to help clients increase emotional and physical safety during the holiday season:

- Pre-plan “safe” conversations that avoid divisiveness or conflict, and consciously choose who to sit next to and who to avoid during a family gathering.

- Drive separately to family functions so you can leave when you choose, and stay at a hotel or with friends so you have safe space to re-group.

- Consider connecting with surrogate family and friends instead of toxic family, and create new holiday traditions that feel safe and meaningful.

- Use resources such as 12 step meetings, online chat rooms, and support groups that reinforce the right to set limits while offering alternatives for social gatherings.

- Spend time doing volunteer work, focusing on altruistic endeavors that create perspective and rekindle a sense of gratitude.

- Consider the role that spirituality and new traditions can play in adding comfort, new meaning, and new memories to this emotionally challenging time of year.

- Limit exposure to social media, the Internet, and the news to take a break from messaging that is triggering and anxiety producing,

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