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‘Tis the season of joy and fellowship, when loving families gather ’round hearth and home, basking in each other’s love andMental health tips to survive the holiday support. It’s important to keep your mental health front and centre at this time of year. During this time, we’re bombarded with messages from every store, billboard and street corner telling us that the holidays are coming, and they will be wonderful. And of course, who doesn’t love the feel-good Christmas rom-coms, music and TV specials? Except for many, the holidays are nothing like that.

If you have a difficult or complicated relationship with your family, the holidays can be a very challenging time. It can also be a very melancholy time if you’re struggling with your mental health or grieving a loss around the holidays. However, there are ways to survive, and even thrive during this complicated season. In this blog I’ll offer some strategies for getting through those dreaded family gatherings, and then some ways to create a solo holiday worth celebrating.

Surviving the family gathering

As much as you might wish your family get-together was all matching sweaters and hot chocolate, that’s often not the reality. For many, family gathering are stressful, and you leave feeling worse than when you arrived—put down, criticized, excluded or not valued. So firstly, if your family it truly toxic, consider not going. Stay home, or gather with close friends where you feel it’s safe. (Take a look at my suggestions in the next section for a solo holiday).

If you are going to expose yourself to a difficult family situation, then take steps to emotionally protect yourself. For starters, try to limit your time with the group. Even if your extended family has planned an all-day extravaganza, you can still just drop in for an hour or two. In addition, go to the party with someone supportive, such as a friend or partner. Having someone connected with you, and sympathetic to your needs and situation makes a big difference. 

Surviving the family gatheringThere are also non-confrontational ways to handle encounters with family members who are insensitive or ignorant, such as the infamous “racist uncle” or “creepy cousin.” Every family seems to have one. Really think about whether it’s worth responding to someone who’s being cruel. Is engaging going to make you feel better or worse? Sometimes the most effective way to deal with toxic people is by excusing yourself to go to the bathroom. By the time you’re back, the conversation has moved on. Another common issue is the relative who traps you in the corner, and wants to download all their work, family or political grievances. If the bathroom ploy won’t work, try a “one strike” gripe policy.  Say something like, “That sounds like it was really hard on you,” then change the topic to your cousin’s baby or the turkey or the weather. This tends to shut down complaint and gossip. They feel heard, but you don’t have to be subjected to a rant.

Embracing a solo holiday

Considering how many of us feel rushed and pulled in every direction, it’s a shame that society tells us being alone during the holidays is wrong, or even pathetic and pitiable. There’s a real double standard around the holidays. For example, if you planned a backyard staycation Labour Day, to just unwind in a chair, people would applaud. Similarly, a great way to embrace a solo holiday season is by planning a special activity that you’ve been really wanting to do, but could never find the time. It’s about shifting your perspective of the day, and making it something to look forward to. 

It could be anything: a craft or art project, start a good book, play a new videogame, watch a favourite movie—or a movie trilogy. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s something you enjoy. While you’re at it, also make plans for a special meal. Get some great take-out or bake treats or cook a pizza from scratch. Late December is also a lovely time for a quiet walk in the crisp winter air, or to admire the lights in the parks. Again, anything enjoyable and outside your routine will feel festive. And then, when someone asks what you’re doing for the holidays, you don’t have to hang your head and say “nothing.” In fact, when you tell them what you’ll be doing, they might even envy your plans.

Your Therapy is a safe, welcoming, counselling therapy practice in the Greater Toronto Area. Thanks for reading and, as always, please feel free to reach out with questions about talk therapy or other mental health issues. We offer depression therapy, anxiety therapy, and more.

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