Experiencing Holiday Joy

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According to the American Psychological Association, more than 60% of the US experiences increased stress and anxiety during the holiday season. If you google “mental health and the holidays,” you’ll find a lot of articles that begin with expressing confusion about what one should do during this time of year when feeling holiday joy, maintaining traditions, and showing up for celebrations are a cultural expectation as much as a pleasure.

Holiday Traditions Contribute to Both Mental Health and Illness

It’s an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, the ability to gather as a social group and to celebrate cultural achievements contributes to good mental health and healthy communities. In fact, the World Health Organization uses this as one of the indicators for a region’s overall mental health, wellness, and happiness.

On the other hand, we have a situation where more than half the people in our country find that the expectation to “enjoy the holidays” increases our sense of anxiety, stress, and other markers of mental illness.

Finding Your Own Balance

In our office, working out this conundrum is about cultivating the space for compromise and taking care to understand our own needs and limits within different contexts. For Men’s Resource Center Director Randy Flood, finding this sort of balance has to do with valuing the contributions we each can make in certain contexts, as well as having the courage to make those contributions even when they differ from what others expect from us or what we ourselves feel an obligation to provide.

According to Randy, “Although the holidays are often marked by ‘traditions,’ and those can bring much sentimentality, joy, and meaning into the season, I encourage folks to also not get boxed in or confined in following traditions in a compulsory or obligatory manner. Don’t be afraid to create new traditions, new symbols, new rituals and pathways in your life, and relationships. Yes, it’s incumbent on us to not personalize everything and to be civil and reasonable with some family traditions—it’s not all about us—but we can also exercise autonomy, creativity, and passion in cultivating and forging new ways of celebrating the holidays.”

Ask What Measures Up for You

However, in the bustle of our expectations and hopes, it can be difficult to find the balance necessary for achieving Happy Holidays. When you’re trying not to think about what your sister will say about your son’s hairstyle as you squint at the meat thermometer to be sure you brown the turkey just enough but not too much AND keep the lumps out of the gravy AND straighten the wreath on the door AND remember to check your credit card balance…it can be difficult to convince yourself that now is the time to evaluate what you find meaningful and happy and how your traditions contribute—or don’t contribute—to your sense of meaning and happiness. But, it’s important that you do.

Some of the stress and strain that accompanies the season of giving has to do with wondering how you will measure up—to your mother’s expectations of your success, a Hollywood stereotype of men your age, your neighbor’s light display down the street, your classmate’s Christmas gifts, your fellow worshipers, your coworkers, the person behind you buying organic grapes in the checkout line, etc. From those dreaming of sugar plums to those running out of Scotch tape, just about everyone is wondering during this festive season, “How do I measure up…how does this compare with last year…what should I be doing differently…who is better than me…am I good enough…am I naughty or nice?”

Experiencing Holiday Joy Takes Self-Knowledge

The truth is, as stressful as questions like this can be, it is good for society and individuals to celebrate our ability to ask them and to find joy and consolation in our freedom to pose an answer. It’s rather amazing that we all go to so much trouble to ensure that there is pomp and finery and glittering colors around these sacred, shared questions. But, if we are really to experience the joy of accepting all that comes in a year that’s past, and embracing all that will arrive in the year that’s on its way, we have to understand how our needs and contributions condition our experiences.

If you’re going to ask these questions in an authentic and healthy way, you must discover your own place and value in them. As you’re taking time to attend to the little details of your holiday parties and traditions, it’s important that you take time to attend to the little details of your own experience of them. Understanding how your traditions affect your senses and thoughts will help you understand which parts of your holidays are the most meaningful and most deserving of your attention.

Give Yourself Permission

Part of reducing stress during the increased activities of the holiday season starts with learning your limits. For Fountain Hill Center therapist Melissa Langley, this is one of the reasons that we really do have to prioritize self-care in the holiday season, even when it means changing or letting go of some traditions. “Give yourself permission to not do something you’d otherwise only do out of guilt or a sense of obligation. This can mean not going to a family dinner when you know that you’ll suffer difficult emotions as a result of relatives’ questions about why you aren’t married, why you don’t have a decent job, etc.

“People look at me like I’m green when I suggest this! But once we talk through the consequences of not prioritizing our emotional needs during the holidays, we realize that everyone feels better when we put a stop to traditions that increase tensions rather than celebrating shared experiences.”

The holidays are so full of expectation that it can be difficult to drum up the courage you need to avoid the dinner, party, or event that poses concerns for you. When you feel like you truly can’t opt out altogether, Fountain Hill Center neurotherapist and addiction specialist Ellen Fix suggests that you opt for a “go late and leave early strategy.” She says, “This is a skill the recovery community has taught for years. There are just some situations that you will face that require you to experience pain and turmoil. Minimizing your exposure to that pain and turmoil can really help. This is a strategy that works really well not only during the holiday season but whenever a person has to face an uncomfortable situation, where they believe or are expected to be somewhere or feel they have to show up.”

Resist the Urge to “Over”

However you find the space to understand how and who you are this holiday season, child and family therapist Tracy Thompson advises that you see this as a time to establish the firm and healthy expectations that you need to find and live your full potential. “What comes up in my sessions a lot around the holidays is holding healthy, strong boundaries. I find that when we are around the holiday season there is an expectation to over-commit, overspend, and overindulge. When we extend beyond our boundaries, we are left with no capacity for the things we really care about and want to spend our time and energy doing. Boundaries and self-care are so important to living well, for yourself and for others. We have to have the ability to say no and not feel guilty, so we have room for the things we value.”

There’s no simple way of striking the right balance and setting healthy boundaries. Discovering which things we really value takes time. Landing on ways to honor those things that work not just for us but for others, is a learning process. But just attempting to learn what our own needs are can help us find more joy and peace to work toward celebrations that uncover shared commitments and mutual understandings.

There’s Joy in the Process, Even When It’s Painful

The Fountain Hill Center’s Executive Coordinator, Amy Van Gunst, understands this as a crucial part of finding peace in the holiday (and everyday) hubbub. “In many ways, what we discover by the togetherness involved in all of our holiday celebrations is that when we celebrate family, community, and tradition, we are celebrating what it means to need, to meet needs, and to be needed. There’s real joy in that process, all along the way, even when it’s painful. That’s part of the reason why we feel so much pressure to be there at a gathering that might make us uncomfortable or to drag the tree trimmings out of the attic despite the mess it’s going to make.

“To do these things—to go the extra mile when you’re already tired, to smile and laugh so that the people around you know that you value the time you spend with them—you really have to know yourself and respect your own needs and limits. And you really have to respect that everyone around you is going through this same process.”

This holiday season, the Fountain Hill Center wishes you much joyful community and peaceful self-discovery. Remember also, we’re here for you when the journey toward reaching your full and flourishing potential needs a little helping hand.

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