The holidays can be a bittersweet time of year. On the one hand, you've got twinkle lights, hot chocolate, and holiday cheer galore. On the other, you're surrounded by not-so-subtle reminders of what's missing in your life—particularly, if you're separated, divorced, or widowed. And even if you're content with being single the rest of the year, the idea of not having a significant other to swap gifts with can be enough to make you question your life choices. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
“Single people shouldn't look to simply survive the holidays, but rather, use the reflective time of the season to thrive,” says Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a Manhattan-based marriage and family therapist (check out these 7 awesome benefits of being single) . "To do this, they must gently shift their view of the holidays from an externally defined time of year to an internally defined one."
At their most basic level, he explains, Christmas represents a period of rebirth and Hanukkah a time to regain control of one's life. By digging deep, you'll anchor yourself in something solid and real, and in turn, connect to the essence of the season. Here's how to get started. (Let’s stay in touch! Sign up to get FREE health, weight loss, and relationship tips delivered straight to your inbox!)
Fess up about how you feel.
When the people around you are all merry and bright and you're, well, not, sucking it up because you're not "supposed" to feel bad during the holidays just leads to more crappy feelings. "Acknowledging your emotions gives you the opportunity to let them go,” says Vivian Sierra, a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. Louis. By suppressing them, you're basically allowing your life to get stuck in neutral. "Being authentic is the gateway to future healthy relationships—and ultimately, love," she says. Translation: Take the time to put your feet up and get your bah humbug on. (These 8 tricks will beat a rotten mood in 60 seconds flat.)
Get out there, even if you don't feel like it.
It's natural to assume that the link between behavior and mood only goes in one direction. (Think: "I feel depressed and therefore skipped the Christmas party.") However, it's a 2-way street more often than we realize—you may feel depressed precisely because you're dodging holiday invites, and in turn, not coming into contact with more positive stimuli. "Increasing pleasant and meaningful activities have been shown to have broad support for individuals who have problems with mood," says Jason Holland, PhD, geropsychologist and assistant professor at William James College in Boston. So force yourself to put at least one party on your calendar this month. You might be surprised by how much fun you have. (And if not? Well, it's just one party.)
Develop a plan for dealing with potential holiday triggers.
For someone who's adjusting to post-divorce singledom or widowhood, the holidays can bring back painful memories and exacerbate feelings of loneliness, says Holland. Stay ahead of the curve by clearly defining the people, places, or things that may trigger negative thoughts or emotions during the holiday season, he suggests, then come up with a game plan for how to best manage these situations before they crop up. Example: If your late husband's sister is a drama queen and visits always leave you feeling on edge, come up with a reason ahead of time for why you can only stay at her place for an hour. Maybe that reason is meeting up with a friend who always puts you in a good mood.
Shake up your holiday routine.
"Switching things up gives your brain a workout by encouraging new associations versus the old neural pathways," explains Nancy Irwin, PsyD, a Los Angeles-based therapist. If you and your ex-husband had a specific holiday itinerary that you followed every year, interrupting your old patterns can help lessen the blow—even little things like preparing different foods, shopping at different stores, or watching different movies can help you miss that person less.
Planning ahead is always the best way to ward off a case of the lonelies, especially during the holidays. Reach out to friends, family, and acquaintances in advance and casually ask what their plans are. Once you share that you don't have any plans, they're likely to invite you to join them. "It's important to remember that when we're lonely, we tend to underestimate how much those around us care about us and would be happy to spend the holidays together," says A.J. Marsden, PhD, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Florida. If this strategy is too awkward, who says you can't do the inviting? Plan a shindig specifically for people who don't have plans. (Feeling lonely is as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day—but here’s how to fight it.)
Get back to your roots.
Think back to a time when the holidays gave you the warm and fuzzies—what were the rituals or traditions that you loved most? Bringing them back into your present can help you regain that spark. "Rituals induce calm and relieve stress by projecting a sense of order and control into the unpredictability of life," says Sierra. "They provide a sense of continuity and belonging that significantly contribute to mental health.”
Reach out to long lost friends and relatives.
Just because you're unable to spend time with certain family members or friends during the holidays doesn't mean you can't connect with them in other ways. "Reaching out to your social connections is good for your mental and emotional health," says Sierra. It boosts your sense of belonging, while also strengthening your social network. All it takes is a festive text message, a funny Facebook post, or an old-school Christmas card to let someone know you care, which boosts their overall wellness too. It's a win-win. (Just make sure you're not breaking one of these 14 Facebook etiquette rules that will get you unfriended fast.)
Do some good.
It can be frightening to see the dark places your mind can wander to when given the opportunity. "Too much time on one's hands can be dangerous," says Hokemeyer. "Get out of the house and into the service of others." Finding community service opportunities is easy, and not only will providing service boost your mood and morale, but it may also foster connections with new people.
Don't put so much pressure on yourself.
Try not to force yourself to have a certain type of holiday experience this year, or for "things to 'be a certain way,'" says Marsden. Keep it simple, and remember that "spending the holidays alone can be a very enjoyable experience if you make time for yourself," she says.
One place to start: Getting some fresh air. Recent research has shown that exercise can help ease depression, especially during the holidays, notes Marsden. Plus, "exercise releases endorphins that make us feel good and spending time outdoors can help increase vitamin D, which also helps ease depression."