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Thriving through the holidays

Ryan Sargent

Warm homes, big dinners, reconnecting with friends and family. The holiday season has the potential to bring joy and heart-warming memories. While we were growing up, we were exposed to traditions and ways of celebration and connection. If those experiences were warm, loving, and supportive, then the holidays can be a wonderful time to deepen our gratitude for the selfless gifts of love we’ve received, to continue traditions, and create some of our own.  

If those experiences weren’t all that great, this time of year can stand to be a stark reminder of what was missing in our past, and perhaps what’s still missing today. If we’ve experienced loss, our grief can be compounded during this time. If our family relationships are strained, our stress levels can skyrocket with the thought of seeing certain people. 

Whether our holiday season is a scene from a Hallmark movie or a Stephen King novel (or somewhere in between), being intentional and prior planning can ensure that we not only survive the holidays but continue to thrive. Below are a few tips to practice healthy behaviors and decision making through the holiday season:

  • Not Everyone Will Be Happy: We can’t make everyone happy. Even our best efforts can leave someone upset. Define some personal boundaries and honor them. Pace yourself. Make a road map of events and activities you’ll be participating in – only do what you want to do, and be honest with others about your plan. What do you really want to spend time and money on? 
  • Stressful Family Gatherings: Become familiar with your stress triggers and have an exit plan if things become overwhelming. Focus on today, not yesterday – be aware of the tendency to fall back into old roles around family (you’re not a child anymore). Take a step back and observe how your family interacts. Be mindful of how you want to act, not how you usually or are “supposed” to act. 
  • Grief or Anniversary of Trauma: The year of ‘firsts’ can be the hardest when we’ve experienced a recent loss. Being reminded of something traumatic during a time set apart for celebration can bring a complex set of emotions. Prepare yourself for these triggers, identify ways you can cope and people to whom you can reach out for a listening ear. If healing from a loss, think of ways you could honor the memory of the loved one. 
  • Avoidance: With Christmas music and decorations everywhere, it can be impossible to avoid the holidays. Reminding ourselves that this time only lasts a short while can help. 
  • Loneliness and Homesickness: If you don’t want to be alone, don’t. Plan some activities with friends and loved ones. Create new memories, start new traditions. If you’re away from home, get together with others who might be alone. Find a meetup to attend and enjoy some new people. 
  • Routine: Stick to your regular routine, as much as possible. Think moderation when eating or drinking. Keep appointments with your therapist, if you have one. 
  • Self-Care!: This is the most important piece. Take care of yourself. Yes, this can be a time of giving, and it’s also meant to be a time of enjoyment for you as well. Start keeping a gratitude journal where you write down one good thing that happens each day. If this is a hard time, think back on good times you’ve had and recognize this is only a season. Stay active and monitor sleep. Consider light therapy if feelings of being down come around with the cold weather each year. Start now. 

If these strategies aren’t enough, or if things become overwhelming at all, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Use your support system or contact a therapist. If a loved one is struggling, reach out to them. Encourage them to seek help if things persist. 

Ryan Sargent is MVRC’s in-house counselor, email him at