Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

Making the holidays suck less: How to approach the jolliest time of year when you don't feel very merry and bright.

Let’s first debunk a myth about the holidays. For years, people have perpetuated the idea that suicide rates skyrocket between Thanksgiving and Christmas, leading us to conclude that the holidays breed this intense depression and loneliness.

Let’s put this myth to rest. The truth is that the month of December has the fewest suicides than any other time of year. What is interesting to note, however, is that there is a significant increase of suicides right after Christmas — a 40% increase. From the studies that have been done on depression, suicide, and the holidays, the consensus seems to tell us that the winter holidays insulate many from suicide, but there is a sort of rebound effect that occurs once the holidays have passed. This is a sad reality and might cause some anxiety in my readers who may be struggling emotionally this time of year. But, hark, I also bring you good news! Keep reading.

There are several reasons why we see an increase in suicide after the holidays, but it seems the reason that is most obvious has to do with loneliness and isolation. In one study, the most common stressor listed by many patients who were treated at a psychiatric center during the holidays listed loneliness and being without a family as their primary stressor. Loneliness is a modern day epidemic. Neurologically and emotionally, humanity is wired for human connection, yet we often don’t experience it in a fulfilling way — sometimes we even sabotage or run away from true connection. Loneliness is a signal that we need to reconnect. But often that signal goes ignored.

Commercials and popular holiday movies portray people enjoying their families and experiencing fulfilling traditions during the holiday season. Often this insidious messaging can make us second-guess our families and the quality of our own relationships. Or maybe we just truly do not have a close or fulfilling family. Usually these messages do not portray reality and it’s important we are aware of them and not judge ourselves by them.

The old, true adage tells us “we can’t pick our family.” If individuals could trade in their given family, I know several who would be in line to exchange theirs. Maybe you came from an abusive family. Maybe you have parents who don’t understand you, and you feel even lonelier when you spend time with them. Maybe you can’t see your family because they live far away. Maybe you don’t have living family members anymore.

The sad reality is…we are stuck with the families we were born into, and sometimes we lose the family we have. But, here’s the good news: families can also be invented; that is, they can be selectively chosen. If you are beginning to feel the holiday blues set in this season because of a lack of family, then try the following to see if you can make this winter season suck less.

· Grieve. Grieve the family you don’t have. Grief is an emotion that often gets a bad reputation, but it is important for our mental health. When we grieve we are sending a message to ourselves that we matter. Think about that. When you ignore your sadness and fail to grieve, the inherent message is that your emotions, longings, and desires do not matter. You are making a choice to actively ignore them by ignoring grief. When you grieve, you are giving those longings a space to be acknowledged, expressed, and released. Grief that goes unacknowledged usually comes back to manifest itself in a dysfunctional way. Allow yourself to feel sad about the family you wish you had. (Shameless plug alert: if you’d like to listen to a podcast episode I produced to help others understand grief better, check it out here).

· Dream. This is the fun part. If you’re single and plan to one day create your own family, what would you want the holidays to look like? How can you still experience a fulfilling holiday without a close immediate family in the meantime? This year a dear friend of mine and I decided to spend Thanksgiving together and invited a few of our other friends to participate. We spent an entire afternoon dreaming about what we wanted our holiday to look like — complete with pumpkin pancakes and a football game in the park. I can honestly say it has been one of my favorite holidays to date.

· Connect. If you struggle to find people to spend the holidays with, then take that as a sign and an opportunity to make changes. Maybe your reality is that you do not have close or fulfilling relationships. Not having close relationships starts with you — you must take responsibility for that and may need to change some things in order to maintain closeness in your life. Learn how to connect so you can correct this problem. It’s a frustrating reality that many people will spend the holidays alone when they would rather spend them with others. Move toward connecting with others to see how they are spending their holidays. Ask about your neighbor’s holiday plans when you are making small talk at the mailboxes. Invite people over to your home when you see them in the hallways of your apartment complex. Step out of your comfort zone and learn how to connect.

Remember: you do not have to feel all kinds of merry and bright this holiday season. There may be some significant reasons that your holidays feel crummy. But you have a choice about how you can embrace this holiday season. Give yourself time. Connecting takes effort and practice, and substantial relationships take time to foster. And if you end up spending time by yourself this holiday, then that’s okay too. It doesn’t mean you’re not special or lovable, friend. It just means that you’re figuring it out, and it’s okay if that results in an unpleasant holiday experience for the time being.

In the meantime, turn on some 90’s N’Sync Christmas carols and dance your ass off. That’s one of my favorite Christmas traditions.