November can be difficult. Here in the Northeast US days are short; sunlight sleeps in and slips away before dinner. The stress of the holidays looms large.
The holiday season can be a draining, depressing time. So many triggers for so many people. Throw in the fact that we know we should feel happy, and the holidays can seem impossible to get through. And after surviving the holidays and making it to a new year? Months of cold. Snow. Cold. Ice. Cold. Short days. Cold. Even in good adult years, that’s a difficult fact.
Here are six ways to do more than just survive the holidays.
1. Look for opportunities to serve
The holidays can be hard, but they’re also a great time to find ways to look beyond yourself, get outside your own head, and find ways to serve others. Pack a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child in November. Serve meals to the homeless. Get together with a group of friends to sing Christmas carols in a nursing home. There is no shortage of opportunities to brighten someone’s holiday season. Start with the thing that seems small, but takes a HUGE effort and can make a HUGE difference: SMILE at people. As difficult as it can be to not withdraw, make the effort to notice others. Look for opportunities to meet at least one need a week. Maybe today it’s smiling at the tired-looking, sad-eyed lady in the grocery store or letting the frazzled cashier know he’s doing a fine job regardless of how the impatient customer ahead of you made him feel. Maybe it’s buying a coat or boots for the kid down the street and getting them to his mom anonymously. Open your eyes and your heart.
2. Change things up
Overwhelmed by all the things you feel obligated to do over the holidays? Consider doing things differently. Does your family expect you to host Thanksgiving, or bake three pies? Is there someone else in the family who can take over “your” job while you take on something that feels more manageable? Are you expected to get presents for EVERYONE? Suggest a different way to handle gift exchange. No one really needs a gift from everyone. Does Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, or a New Year’s Eve get-together, always leave everyone at each other’s throats or regretful? Consider donating that time to a worthy cause; go help feed people who are hungry or spend time with people who are alone. If the way you’ve been doing things hasn’t worked, try a new approach. Accept when it’s time to say the dreaded word: No.
3. Know you have a choice
If you know you’re not going to change your usual plans this year, then you need to take responsibility for them. No matter how much duress you feel you are under to meet others’ expectations, the world will go on if you say No. It is your choice to say Yes. If you can get past all the reasonable and unreasonable expectations loved ones place on you, and realize you have the power to do something different, accepting that you are choosing to participate in activities that stress you can make them a whole lot less stressful. You make your choices; live with them. More specifically, live in them. Let go of resentment over the reasons you feel obligated. Stop wishing you could be somewhere else doing something else with someone else and let yourself be fully present in the moment. You may be surprised by what you find there.
4. Let go of expectations
It’s a toss-up when it comes to whose expectations can most mess with our mood and mess up our day. The ones others place on us, or our own? The opinions of others don’t define you; give yourself permission to be and do your best, not what others think your best should be. What expectations are you placing on yourself? How about on those around you? Are they supposed to make you happy? Are they supposed to be always nice and kind, or find you the perfect present? What do you expect from the holiday? Are your expectations reasonable? If you need something from someone, be honest; do not accuse. Try letting a day unfold without expecting particular things to happen, or to feel particular feelings. You’ll be more at peace, and more satisfied.
5. Accept blessings as they come
No holiday, no family, no friend is perfect. Whether you hate the way you usually spend the holidays, love it, or are ambivalent, there will be good and bad mixed together. That’s the reality of the frailty of humanity and life in this world. But there is always something to be thankful for. There is always beauty to find, always something to learn. One of the greatest things I’m learning on this walk of faith is that there is a blessing in everything. It is always God’s intent to bless us in and through all circumstances. The difficult part is accepting the blessing. Acceptance allows us to find it, hidden behind whatever packaging it comes wrapped in. Sometimes we mistake pretty packaging for the blessing. Sometimes we miss the beauty because we reject the pain in which it tries to come.
6. Remember the Reason
I know. It’s a cliché. But Jesus is the Reason for the Season. Something we don’t like to hear, but gain so much when we live it: It’s not about me. Understanding who God is and our identity in relation to Him are integral to mental health. God created us, He understands the intricacies of how our brains work, and how they don’t. We can’t be healthy living in opposition to the design of the Designer. The healthiest order of things is honoring God first and the needs of others second; it’s funny how our needs get taken care of when our desires aren’t top priority. Take time to thank Him for your blessings. Don’t leave Him out of your decisions. Make Him the center of your celebration.
I want more
I don’t want to just survive the holidays. I’ve had enough of that.
But I’ve let Christmas, the holiday season, my life, get so small. In part because wanting to live was nearly impossible at times. Lamotrigine has helped. As an anticonvulsant it helps keep my brain from getting locked into the blackness that leaves me longing for annihilation.
But the abyss of severe depression isn’t my only problem.
Yes, unpleasant triggers and bad memories, depression and anxiety make the holidays difficult, and the lack of sunlight leaves me feeling depleted. But giving my feelings so much importance empowers the misery. I give it more control than it steals, and unwittingly but willingly push myself into a downward spiral.
When we’re children, we evaluate everything by how it makes us feel. It’s something we need to grow out of.
The bigger picture
We can’t be truly healthy when our wants, opinions, preferences, or feelings eclipse others’.
We’re made for bigger things than ourselves. And we were made that way by Someone larger than us.
Thanksgiving is meant to be a day set aside to thank God for His many blessings. It’s best celebrated as a type of Sabbath, a day set aside to worship, and rest from the day-to-day pressures of life.
We celebrate Christmas to commemorate the Greatest Gift given by the God who created and loves us. Two-thousand years ago, God sent His Son, the exact representation of Himself in human form, to demonstrate His love, teach us how it looks to love each other as He loves us, and pay a debt we couldn’t pay.
We spend our whole lives knowing something is missing. But far too few of us find it, find Him.
For most people, being a Christian doesn’t magically cure depression or other emotional and mental health issues, but God can do amazing things with the broken pieces of our hearts, minds, and lives.
If you haven’t yet accepted God’s Lordship of your life, I pray you are confronted with His reality and His love this holiday season. May you experience something you can explain in no other way than His hand at work. Amen.
With God, we can do far more than just survive the holidays, far more than we can imagine.