Have a Happy Holiday, Even in Hard Times

Sad or stressed out? These strategies can help you find joy.

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The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve is supposed to be full of holiday cheer. Some years, however, those feelings of levity can be hard to muster.

This year, in particular, the disruption of COVID-19 could make it an especially difficult holiday season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people take steps to protect others and to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with the safest option being to avoid celebrations with anyone outside your household bubble. For those hoping to spend time with loved ones—or being pressured to do so—this could be additional stress at an already hard time.

The expectation that this is a time when you should feel really happy can add a lot of pressure, says Jack Nitschke, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

That can be especially true if the holidays compound an already difficult situation. Maybe you’re a caregiver whose plate is full, or this is your first holiday season without a loved one. You may also be feeling down because of an ongoing family conflict or because you feel excluded from festivities.

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According to experts, feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious is perfectly normal this time of year. A 2016 nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of more than 2,000 adults in the U.S. found that 97 percent of holiday shoppers said they dreaded at least one aspect of the season, including having to put their house in order and seeing certain relatives.

But there are strategies that can help you get through it—and even experience some joyful moments along the way. Here’s what experts advise about making the most of the holiday season in the midst of a difficult time.

If You're Grieving

If someone close to you recently passed away, let yourself mourn however you need to, even during happy times.

“Sometimes family members will say, ‘Oh, please don’t cry,’ ” Nitschke says. But it’s normal to feel happy one minute and weepy the next. “It’s okay to cry if you are sad or stressed. Recognize that you are going to have mixed feelings.”

If You're Lonely

If you feel alone or excluded over the holidays or are avoiding gathering with others to try to keep everyone safe from COVID-19, getting an earful about everyone else’s plans—or seeing them play out on social media—might make you feel even worse.

Comparing your life with another person’s is a normal instinct, but it can sharpen feelings of missing out. Instead, “focus on what you have in your life, and what it is that you would like to be doing right now,” Nitschke suggests.

If You're Overwhelmed by Caretaking

The holiday season can bring certain challenges for caregivers, says Nathaniel Chin, MD, a geriatrician at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

For example, if you’re taking care of someone who had a stroke or has a chronic disease, new places or new people can cause discomfort or disorientation for him or her. People with dementia might confuse decorations with food, and bright lights or loud noises can cause them to be agitated, Chin says.

Planning can help limit these kinds of situations. Ask others to work around your needs so that you can enjoy the holiday, too.

If You Have Tense Family Relationships

You may not be seeing extended family this year. But if you are, you may have to spend a prolonged period of time with challenging relatives. Try to control those interactions to the best of your ability.

Don’t hesitate to excuse yourself from a stressful conversation or surround yourself with others who can act as a buffer, Nitschke says. Consider choosing your seat at the dinner table carefully, and keep the commitment as brief as you can.

For Everyone During the Holidays

In any challenging situation, remember to take care of yourself. It can be difficult, but make it a priority to eat healthy food, get ample sleep, and maintain an exercise routine throughout the season, says Jack Ende, MD, a professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

If you feel stressed during the holidays, remember that it’s not out of the ordinary and that it may pass. But if stress and sadness persist, consider connecting with a therapist in the new year.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the December 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.