Couples Therapy 101: Staying jolly through the holiday season

Let’s face it-the holidays can be very overwhelming once you become an adult. Gone are the carefree days waiting for Santa the night before Christmas, now you worry about how you are going to pay for all of it. Christmas is now filled with finances, time crunches, crazy holiday shoppers, and for some the worst – the in-laws are coming to stay over! The holidays are filled with extended family and extended family can be a touchy and emotionally charged subject for many couples. Hey, you may LOVE your family to pieces and cannot wait to spend the holiday with them, but your spouse…not so much. You may LOVE your spouse’s family but an extended amount of time with them can drive you to madness. It can be difficult to determine the best way to deal with your frustrations around the relatives and many times those frustrations can be projected onto your spouse. This can put an additional strain on your relationship at a time when stress levels are already high. So, what are the best ways to stay jolly through the holiday visitors and ensure you are able to enjoy your spouse during the season? Try these tips to ease the holiday stress and make sure the memories from this season are the best yet!

  • Give them a break: If your relatives are the ones visiting make sure you are communicating in advance about all the details of the visit. If you have activities you would like to enjoy while your family is in town let your spouse know. Be specific about the activities that are most important for you to enjoy with your spouse and give them a break on some of the ones that are not. If you enjoy shopping with your parents and you know your spouse hates it—give them the day off. Suggest he or she do something they enjoy doing. This will take the pressure off of you to enjoy shopping and your spouse will come back renewed after enjoying a break.
  • Change your expectations: Your partner’s family is likely not going to change. If you’re expecting that one of these years a family much like your own will walk through the door, you are setting unrealistic expectations. Embrace them for who they are and hold on to the fact that they created the person you spend your life with – they have done something right!
  • Set boundaries: Discuss what has been a touchy area in previous visits and find a middle ground. You are a team so you need to present a united front. Respect your partner’s boundaries and understand that this may be a difficult time for them.
  • Remember it’s temporary: This is just a short season and they will be gone before you know it. Soon enough you will be free to enjoy your home and your spouse again. Dwelling on the negative will only make the time go by slower.
  • Have FUN and share it: So you love to play golf and your father-in-law has never tried it. Set up a tee time with him. It’s a lot harder to be unhappy when you are doing something you love. People appreciate it when you take the time to share with them something that you enjoy and even if he is not into it – you’re still on the course! Enjoy! He may just enjoy it too.
  • Fight Fair: So you are trying your best but something a relative did has you all worked up. Remember to communicate this with your spouse without attacking their character or family. Attacking their family can be just as bad as attacking them directly. Voice your opinion about the direct behavior that is bothering you. Behavior can be changed but character is much more difficult and words are not easily taken back. Don’t let this one holiday set you up for a disastrous year!
  • Catch the holiday spirit: Be thankful for family-there are many out there that wish they could have one more holiday with their annoying cousin, hyperactive nephew or weird uncle. Life is short-make memories that will last.

Grieving during the holiday season

It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. That’s how I feel about the holiday season this year. It’s the best of times because I love the holiday season, who doesn’t? I eat so much I can’t move, I see family members that I seldom see and I get time off of work. It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

But this year is very different because my mom isn’t here. She passed away suddenly a few months ago. So this year, I’m truly dreading celebrating the holidays because it will be a constant reminder that my mom isn’t here to celebrate with me. Rather than being a time of thanksgiving, laughter and cheer, this holiday may bring feelings of sadness, emptiness and loss.

Grieving a loss during the holidays is incredibly difficult. Your loss may look different than mine. You may be grieving a loss of a relationship/divorce, a job, a pet, a home, a friendship, a miscarriage, a financial loss…..the list goes on. So how are we going to get through this holiday season with all this grief?

My plan this year is to just get through it. The first holiday season is usually the most challenging. If your loss is fairly recent, just focus on getting through the next few weeks.

If you are able to do more than just bear through the holidays, here are some suggestions for dealing with grief this holiday season:

  • Allow yourself to enjoy it. Don’t feel guilty if you find yourself laughing, having a good time or even forgetting your grief for a moment. You are entitled to experience some joy. Surround yourself with supportive and comforting people who will encourage you to be yourself and will accept your sadness and your joy.
  • Accept the sadness. It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to be happy all the time. Allow yourself times of solitude but do not isolate yourself. Letting yourself feel sad or cry is actually good for the grief process.
  • Talk about it. Permitting yourself to feel grief and openly talking about it will actually help you feel better. Talk to people you trust and be honest about how you are really coping. Sharing memories can also be a source of comfort. Ignoring the grief and pain will only lengthen the grief process.
  • Modify old traditions. New traditions don’t have to be established right away but finding a way to make new traditions to fit your new situation will help with grief. Some may find comfort in the old traditions while others find them terribly painful. Be open with your family and friends about how changing or keeping old traditions affects you.
  • Say no. Feelings of loss can leave you physically fatigued. You may not be able to do as much as you have in the past. Listen to your body, do what you can and only what feels right. Don’t feel obligated to participate in anything that you don’t feel up to.
  • Honor your loved one. It’s important to find a way to honor your loved one. You can make their favorite dish to honor them or spend some time reflecting on their life and how they impacted you. You can even incorporate them into your celebration of the holidays.

Getting through this holiday season while grieving will be extremely difficult. Believe me, I know as I am experiencing it myself. The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday season while you are grieving a loss. However, if you are experiencing hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, change in appetite, loss of enjoyment or thoughts of hurting yourself, make an appointment to see a therapist as these are signs of depression. Love yourself enough this holiday season to get the help that you need.

Preventing the Post Holiday Blues

“The stress and craziness of the holiday season is finally coming to an end. So why do I feel so down and depressed?”

Many people have some variation of the above thought at some point during the first part of the new year. If you have asked yourself this question, then you have already achieved the first step in preventing the “post holiday blues”. We must recognize and acknowledge our emotions before we can begin taking action steps to move through this hard time and feel better.

What are the symptoms of the blues? Changes in sleep patterns, such as the desire to sleep more or insomnia, can be a sign of mild depression. Mood swings, having the urge to cry for no apparent reason, and feeling sad or down are also common signs. The National Institute of Mental Health states that people can have headaches, increased alcohol consumption, and overeat as a result feeling depressed after the holiday season. Feelings of fatigue or increased anxiety are also common indicators of depression.

Children can suffer from post Christmas doldrums as well, though their symptoms may present themselves a bit differently. Kids may have decreased motivation, decreased focus on schoolwork, seem as though they are in a brain fog, or become more reclusive. Returning to school can be difficult because they are facing another 3 months without a break from homework and tests. Many children feel sad because they are not engaging in the fun activities they enjoyed over the Christmas break such as seeing family, or hanging out and relaxing with friends.

There are several ways to assist your children through this back-to-school time. It is helpful to create opportunities to see family after the holiday season, and allow meaningful hang out time with close friends when possible. Plan activities that your entire family can look forward to such as ice-skating, game night, or a trip to the movie theater. Even printing off holiday photos and creating an album can raise your little one’s spirits.

Here are several steps that can help to return you and yours to a better state of mind:

1.    Get rest!  The hustle and bustle of the holidays can lead to less sleep. Lack of sleep has been linked to irritability and depression, as well as weight gain and other health concerns. Give yourself a week of 8 hour nights of sleep and get back on a sleep schedule by going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. Incorporate down time to relax and regain energy.

2.    Feel it.  Allow yourself to acknowledge and experience your emotions and tell yourself that it is okay to feel down. Name the emotion, identify what your thoughts are regarding the emotion, and express your feelings in a productive way. This may be crying, talking to someone, journaling, or listening to music. Remember to give yourself permission to move out of the emotion.

3.    Get sunlight and exercise.  You may not have noticed how much you have been inside over the winter break, or the way the days have become shorter. Our bodies need sunlight in order to produce vitamin D3, which is needed to synthesize the brain chemicals that create feelings of well-being. If getting outside is difficult during these shortened days, then you may want to consider purchasing a sunlamp. Sunlamps are typically used for ten minutes a day and results are usually seen in four to five days.

Regular exercise (3 to 4 times per week for at least 30 minutes) has been linked to increased production of neurotransmitters, which in turn leads to increased mood and energy.

4.    Focus on others.  When we help someone in need or give of our time and energy to better other human beings we can’t help but experience feelings of joy. Sometimes we simply need to take our focus off of ourselves and by taking an active step in this process we stop dwelling on our negative state of mind. Volunteering for an organization you are passionate about, taking a sick friend dinner, or running an errand for a family that is going through a hard life circumstance are just a few ideas of how to focus on other people.

5.    Plan events and get excited about the future.  We often look forward to spending more time with family during the holidays, but why not plan an activity once a month to look forward to as well? You could organize a supper club with those closest to you, plan a girls or guys night out for the same time each month, or have a family movie night every couple of weeks. Planning fun activities with those we love not only gives us something to look forward to, but it helps us not fall into a pattern of isolation and reclusiveness.

6.    Focus on spirituality.  Research shows that when we are all consumed with ourselves and our day- to-day lives and have no spiritual grounding, this can lead to depression. Give yourself permission to explore big questions such as: What is my purpose? Why am I here? Why is there suffering? Is there a higher power? Of course, you may never find the absolute final answer, but allowing ourselves to ask these questions and explore what we believe can lead to joy and understanding.

If you are struggling with any of these questions, then seek wise counsel to help you navigate through this exploration. Pastors, friends, and Licensed Professional Counselors are all good people to include, if needed, in your spiritual journey.

I hope that the above steps will help to relieve any post holiday funk that you or your family members may be feeling. If you implement the steps above and still cannot seem to get any relief from feelings of depression, then you may need professional help. Licensed counselors and psychologists are trained to help people navigate hard times, and achieve relief from depression.