No matter the holidays you celebrate, the winter season holds special meaning for many. Some even say it’s their favorite time of year — but that doesn’t mean it comes without challenges. Familial expectations, travel obligations, increased to-dos, and the pressure to show up a certain way can be a lot.
The holidays can also present unique circumstances around engaging and connecting with others, as we’ve seen more broadly in recent years due to the pandemic.
To help ensure that cheer and challenge don’t need to be mutually exclusive, Brie Vortherms, MA, LMFT, MindCoach, and director of Life Time Mind, offers her advice on handling stress, expectations, and grief — so you can ultimately enjoy a more fulfilling season.
Life Time Editorial | This year, many are worried about spending as gifts and travel become more expensive. What advice do you have when it comes to the stress of managing money during the holidays?
Brie Vortherms | Have real conversations with the people in your life about gift expectations and budgets. That may seem like a daunting or awkward task but it’s really a loving thing to do and can help put your family and friends at ease. This is essentially setting a financial “boundary,” and boundaries help people feel safe and more relaxed.
For example, your family could agree on a max budget for gifts, draw names rather than getting everyone something, or decide to do an experience together instead of presents. My family started ordering a digital concert and it’s touching and so enjoyable to sing along to it together. It’s now our priority to find a holiday concert and stream it at home together instead of exchanging gifts.
The reality is most people need connection and playfulness more than they need physical gifts. But if you’re still feeling stress about it, I recommend doing an exercise to bring yourself out of stress-response mode. I believe everyone should have at least five things at the ready to do for self-soothing in times of stress.
Here are a few of my favorite exercises:
And here are a couple of my favorite tools:
LTE | Are there other challenges specific to this year you’re hearing about?
BV | Another challenge families may face is gathering for the holidays with relatives or friends who stand differently on various issues in our world. I circle back to boundaries again as a tool to keep get-togethers respectful.
If you’re hosting and concerned about this, you could send a message to the group prior to your event that simply states: “We are looking forward to everyone spending time together! Our hope and request is to keep conversations respectful. If this becomes difficult, please decide to have the conversation another time.”
Again, this may seem awkward, but it at least sets a respectful tone and can limit discomfort at the gathering. It also doesn’t mean differences can’t be discussed — it just invites them to a separate conversation at a different time.
And remember, if there is an event or tradition that doesn’t fit your current value system, you can simply say no. This can be hard at first, but the more we set functional boundaries, the more we feel like ourselves and the easier it becomes.
LTE | For those experiencing a life change or loss this year, what advice do you have for navigating traditions and other holiday activities that may be difficult?
BV | Grief and loss can be particularly acute around the holidays. The best advice I can give is to plan for having those hard moments. Learn how to sit with your emotions — particularly the heavier ones like anger, pain, or guilt — and validate them. Then, breathe and release them. No feeling is final or forever. You can also plan to ask for more support emotionally or with responsibilities and take it easy. (Learn more: “Coping With Grief During the Holidays”)
Grief expert, David Kessler, offers five key takeaways for coping during the holidays:
- It’s OK to not be OK. You’re not a grinch, you are in grief.
- Include your loss in your holiday. Example: Light a candle for those no longer with you.
- It’s OK to say no or have an exit strategy.
- Ask for what you need directly. Example: “I need someone to have coffee with me.”
- Dedicate time for your grief. Example: Commit to shower time being grief time.
LTE | Expectations are often heightened around the holidays, which can lead to disappointments. Do you have any tips for managing expectations when things don’t go as planned?
BV | As humans, we are perfectly imperfect. Accepting this helps some of those mishaps and disappointments feel less devastating and more joining; we are all in this together! We should always strive to be our most functional, respectful selves and, at the same time, give grace to the parts of us that need to fall apart, say no, or disappoint ourselves or others.
How do we do this? Start by having kinder self-conversations. In your mind, invite yourself into a warm, comfortable room. Imagine sitting down and talking to yourself with the kindness of a dear friend. Open the windows in the room of your mind and let the self-criticism and negative thinking rush out.
LTE | The holidays can also be a lonely time for some, and social media sometimes amplifies this. What advice would you give someone who is comparing their holiday experiences to those on social media?
BV | Try to use the powers of virtual spaces for joy instead of comparison. There are many amazing and affordable virtual concerts to attend, accounts to engage with that make room for healing, and podcasts to listen to that focus on hopeful messages.
If you’re wanting to work on having a better relationship with social media, I recommend holistic psychologist Nicole LaPera’s podcast episode, “How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Social Media.” She discusses comparison and how to navigate social media in emotionally healthy ways.
The song “You Are Not Alone” by Allison Russell and Brandi Carlile is one of my favorites. It can be an inspiring meditation about the power of community.
Mindfulness Exercise for the Holidays
Vortherms offers a short meditation to help you practice mindfulness and diffuse stress.
Loving Kindness Meditation
Before an event, spend five minutes visualizing each part of the event as if it’s going to plan. See your interactions with people as warm and kind because that is how you want them to be. If there are going to be difficult people in attendance, picture them in front of you, see them as worthy, and wish them well. See your face with a genuine smile and a warm light radiating out of you. Tell yourself: People are left better off after interacting with me. Choose to enjoy yourself and see yourself as worthy of relaxing and having a good time.