Be Grateful at the Holidays
By Gayla Grace
The holiday season includes joy, laughter, and light-hearted fun. But it can also bring chaotic days with never-ending to-do lists or painful memories from an empty chair where a loved one used to sit. In my own family, my sisters and I face the first holiday season without our beloved mom.
How do we cope when life takes a turn we don’t like? How do we find joy through the holidays if our circumstances don’t feel joyful?
Seeking after gratitude can make a difference. Family therapist Mary Arcement, LPC, says gratitude can help you take the focus off the situation you’re unhappy with and redirect your thoughts to what’s positive in your life.
“In marriage therapy, I often see couples focused on what the other person is doing wrong,” Arcement says. “I’ve used gratitude to help them focus on themselves first and consider what the other person IS doing that contributes to the relationship. Couples tend to focus on what doesn’t exist-not enough love, not enough money-what is not. I encourage them to consider what IS working, what their spouse IS doing, which moves them toward gratitude.”
Dr. Martin Seligman, commonly known as the founder of Positive Psychology, has done extensive research on the positive effects of gratitude and mood. His exercise, Three Blessings, seems too simple to make a difference but research shows otherwise.
Participants are asked to take ten minutes every night before going to bed to write down three things that went well that day and why they went well. For example, if your spouse took the trash out or your difficult co-worker was friendly, you record it. For at least 3-4 times a week you do the exercise, focusing on small things in your day you’re thankful for.
Research has proven the exercise works. After only seven days, participants reported increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms that had a lasting effect for six months, even if they didn’t continue the exercise.
Arcement acknowledges the benefits of the exercise. “I did a gratitude journal years ago and it really helped me,” she says. “Writing down 2-5 things a day, doesn’t have to be much, increases your gratitude in life.” It helps you become much more aware of the good in your circumstances.
Gratitude allows us to live in the present and focus on the moment instead of wishing for a different scenario and grumbling about our situation. We move from a spectator position to an active player when we accept our circumstances and consider the positives of them.
“Holidays and stress go hand-in-hand,” says professional counselor Leigh Peregoy, LCSW. It may be grief for some people or anxiety and depression for others, but Peregoy offers additional steps to combat heightened emotions during the holiday season.
Anticipate the holiday. “You can’t bury your head in the sand,” says Peregoy. “Anticipate the holiday so you don’t find yourself facing something you’re not prepared for.” Think about previous holidays and what triggers heightened emotions for you. If you’ve had a significant change over the last year, perhaps a death or other loss, realize how this will impact you and what you need to do to combat the barrage of difficult emotions that could emerge.
Talk about the elephant in the room. Confide in friends and family on hard days. Find a counselor or pastor if you’re stuck in dysfunctional patterns. Don’t hide from your feelings or run away from them with too much alcohol, overeating, or retail therapy.
Consider your options. If you’re anxious about too much time with your hard-to-get-along-with mother-in-law, talk through different scenarios with your spouse. “If we think this is the only way it has to be, that makes us freeze up,” says Peregoy. Choose an option that works for you without sacrificing harmony in your home.
Start new traditions. If your holiday table has a person missing this year, perhaps you can find an elderly person or military couple without family in the area and invite them to join you. “Do something completely different,” says Peregoy to find joy amidst hard emotions. Volunteer to serve food at the homeless shelter or pick up a name from the angel tree and buy a gift for a child that wouldn’t get a gift otherwise.
Don’t “should” on yourself! “We get fixed into thinking-this is the way I’ve always done it, this is the way we should do things,” says Pergoy. “That sets us up for some type of failure or lost expectation.” It’s OK to make changes in your routine. If holiday habits cause excessive stress, consider a different option that’s right for you and your family. Then, own your choice-even if others don’t like it or understand why.
As the holiday festivities propel into full swing, heightened emotions don’t have to accompany your schedule. Consider changes you need to put in place this year to make it one of harmony with others, joy in your heart, and gratitude for your blessings.