Recently I was talking to a friend who said, “Winter is tough for me. How do I keep down all these negative feelings?”
She had recently lost her mom. They were very close and with the holiday season at hand, she was struggling to find her footing. Every box she opened and ornament she put out seemed to contribute to her sense of loss and sadness.
The holidays are a wonderful time of year…yet, many people also report an increased amount of stress and sadness. For some, it’s the pressure of the season to purchase gifts, fit in activities, and keep up with the hustle and bustle. For others, it may be their first year following a divorce, a breakup, or in my friend’s case, the loss of a loved one. These experiences contribute to wintertime struggles.
So, how can we reduce holiday stress and have a happier season this year?
When I’m asked how to stave off negative feelings, I always encourage the person to take a step back and reassess. When we feel something not-so-great, whether it’s fear, anger, sadness or hurt, there’s often a tendency to want to squelch those feelings down and turn them off.
But it’s important we remember our feelings are there to protect us. It’s not that we need to stave off our feelings. Maybe we simply let our feelings be there. We can sit with our feelings and hold them for a bit. We can be mindful and aware of how we’re feeling, without fighting it.
Today is a grey day outside. We recently had snow, but it’s overcast and dark. It’s cold. When I woke up this morning, like many people, I noticed I wasn’t feeling the same energy I’d feel on a bright sunny spring day. So, when these grey moods happen, we can simply notice them. Don’t try to turn the feelings off. Let them be there, but also, don’t get lost in the mood.
Take a cue from the way children handle emotions. When they experience sadness, what do they do? They cry, they yell, they really feel sadness. And then when they’re done, they move forward. When those emotions are allowed to come to the surface, we can feel them, acknowledge them and then release them.
Often when we fully feel our feelings, they become less stressful. We’re no longer fighting them or trying to turn them off.
The other key is to build up a reservoir of the goodness we experience, even in the dark days. We can even think of it like a game as we go out in the world and “find” positive experiences to add to our collection—it may be a smile in the elevator, a funny conversation with a coworker, the taste of your favorite peppermint candy. These little, positive moments reassure us there is beauty and goodness in the world. They help us build our sense of wellbeing.
Our goal shouldn’t be to talk ourselves out of our feelings, but to balance them out.
There’s lots of research on the importance of really giving thanks. The benefits of gratitude are now scientifically proven to boost our mood and help us increase our sense of joy and well-being.
As humans, we have a negativity bias. Consider the last time someone gave you feedback on a project. Chances are, they could have said 10 positive points about your work and one or two areas to work on. When you walk away, what do you recall and focus on? The criticism.
This is a natural occurrence that was linked to our very survival years ago. We needed to be aware of what was bad, problematic, and dangerous, simply to stay alive. Footprints from a predator, rustling leaves, a sign of disturbance—these could all indicate we were in danger.
These protective mechanisms are still there in our wiring. We naturally look for what is wrong. As we do it over and over it becomes habitual. We barely remember the positives or notice them, we simply focus on the negative. We become Teflon for the positive, where nothing sticks, and Velcro for the negative, where we cling to everything.
The wonderful aspect of the winter season is with the impending holidays, there are plenty of opportunities to notice goodness and joyful moments.
Savor your senses—a warm cup of tea, for example, can add to your positive sensory experience. You need to hold those sensory moments for 10-20 seconds to really let them be with you. Breathe in the positive moments. Acknowledge the good and send a little prayer or word of gratitude to the universe for the beautiful moment.
Whether we’re experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one, the pain of a break up, or other difficulties during this time of year, we don’t need to shy away from it. In fact, part of the beauty of loving someone is that when we lose them, it hurts. That sadness and upset is part of the experience. We can accept and acknowledge it, rather than trying to turn it off.
If our memories are especially raw, it’s important we anticipate how tender we may feel. There will be waves of sadness or hurt. There may even be feelings of anger. It’s natural, and it will happen. When we experience them, it’s okay to really feel them to the fullest.
But we don’t need to dwell in our sadness. We can take the responsibility to create a season for ourselves. What is it that you truly love? What gives you a sense of joy and warmth over the season? Add more of those activities to your day. Give yourself more of those moments that bring you joy rather than dwelling on what’s not there or what cannot be.
Similarly, take the pressure off yourself to create the “perfect holiday.” We focus so much on the pressure, we forget the pleasure. This is especially true for busy parents of young children who may feel there’s barely a moment to think, let alone feel the holiday spirit.
If you’re feeling the pressure, forgo some of the extras, whether it means drawing names in your family instead of giving everyone a gift, or paring down your social calendar. Take the burdens off.
You may realize that, for you, it’s about cultivating a stronger connection with your loved ones or enjoying the beauty of the season. Perhaps for you, the spirit of the holiday comes when you’re enjoying a frosty ride on a sled, admiring holiday windows, or hearing music swell through a beautifully lit cathedral. Focus on the activities and moments that really fulfill you and bring more of it into your life this holiday season.
If the stress comes from spending time with family members or the in-laws, have the conversation well before the event. You may need to discuss your feelings with your partner openly and honestly, even if it’s difficult. Aim to resolve the situation to meet your wants and needs rather than going to an event feeling cranky and upset, which won’t be enjoyable for anyone. Perhaps you need to split your time with families or limit the amount you spend. Get it out in the open so you can reduce holiday stress and have a jolly season as well.
If you’ve had a strained relationship with family or tension that didn’t get addressed before, chances are it will come back up. If you plan to spend time with your family, allay some of the worries by having those challenging conversations and clearing the air.
Pick up a Christmas story to read through on the train as you journey to work. Enjoy a holiday hot chocolate. Call a friend. Listen to beautiful music, admire the lights and smell all the delicious scents of the season These little meaningful moments are powerful ways to ground ourselves and reconnect.
Whether you’re struggling to make the holiday season a little brighter for yourself after a difficult year, or you’re simply wanting to better cope with the stress of the season, take the time to nourish yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over stress—remember stress is there because you care about others and want to have positive experiences. Reframe the stress to focus on building connections, enjoying moments and surrounding yourself with the beauty and love of the holiday season.
Dr. Judith Wright is a media favorite, sought-after inspirational speaker, respected leader, peerless educator, bestselling author, & world-class coach.
She is a co-founder of The Wright Foundation and the Wright Graduate University.
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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.