CELEBRATING ALONE OR WITH A SMALL GROUP DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN’T EMBRACE HOLIDAY CHEER.
Many of us feel more emotional as we enter the holiday season. But if circumstances prevent us from gathering with family, meeting with friends, or vacationing as usual, those extra emotions can spiral down to a place we don’t want to visit.
It’s normal to feel disenchanted and flat-out sad about Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve when we can’t spend time with people near and dear to us. While those feelings are normal and expected, it’s essential to find coping strategies to make the most of the season, no matter what. We solicited experts for their best advice for feeling connected and remaining positive during the holidays.
1. Host a cook-along with family members.
Traditions are a big part of what makes the holiday season memorable. Maybe it’s hanging handmade ornaments on your tree, hearing that story again from your grandmother, or having seconds of your aunt’s signature dessert. But if traditional celebrations are out-of-the-question this year, consider a modern approach.
To feel closer to loved ones, certified holistic wellness coach Kama Hagar suggests putting innovative spins on traditional routines: maybe a cook-off where every household recreates a classic dish and everyone votes on the presentation, or a cook-along where the family secret techniques and ingredients are revealed. “How incredible is it that we have this technology? Hagar asks. “Don’t give up on it. Get creative together.”
To go one step further, ship the final goods to the elder members of the family. “You could schedule a virtual cookie- making class with your mom or bake your grandparents goodies,” Hagar suggests.
If states or oceans separate you and loved ones, look locally to feel connected to others and spread cheer.
“You might deliver food to an elderly person who may not be able to get to the store,” says Amy Cooper Hakim, PhD, an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner. “Or you might call someone who is alone and in need of some company. You could even make holiday cards or ‘thinking of you’ cards to deliver to nursing homes or hospitals.” Giving back in this way improves your spirits, even if you can’t be with your loved ones.
3. Send kind, meaningful gifts or cards, and open virtually.
Small, meaningful gifts and handwritten cards go a long way to help you and your favorite folks feel loved and valued. If money is tight, schedule phone calls or events where you can virtually sing songs, tell funny stories from the past, and stay in touch.
“When people may be experiencing increased levels of anxiety, stress, helplessness, depression, loneliness, and/or grief, having one’s support system to lean on and give emotional support back to can be very comforting and grounding for each other,” says psychologist Yvonne Thomas, PhD. “You can create new positive holiday memories that can be very empowering and uplifting.”
4. Honor your grief.
For some, holidays are a reminder of the loss of someone special to them. Double board-certified psychiatrist Zlatin Ivanov, MD, recommends joining efforts with others to process your feelings and honor the deceased instead of grieving alone. This might manifest as a charitable donation or a physical representation of their life.
“Consider creating a memory box that contains reminders of the person who has died. You can include photos, quotes you associate with them, any mementos you may have,” Dr. Ivanov suggests. And if you can’t do this project in person, pick up the phone to share stories, talk about how much you miss them, and acknowledge your grief.
5. Practice thoughtfulness weekly.
You don’t need oversized, expensive gestures to create a chain-reaction of kindness in your community, family, or friend group. In fact, the simple act of being present can help those around you feel supported and heard during a challenging season. And, by giving to others, you give to yourself.
According to Hagar, feeling loved is vitally important to a human’s well-being, so take on the task of practicing a thoughtful gesture weekly from November until January (and beyond, because, why not?).
“Call someone you know that has no family, write a letter to your recently widowed family friend, or reach out to someone who was recently divorced or lost their job,” Hagar says. “The holidays are super hard on everyone, especially those in lonely or insecure situations. Make it a weekly practice to reach out to call or FaceTime to make others feel the holiday spirit.”
6. Schedule a family holiday toast.
If you have double-digit cousins, aunts and uncles, siblings with youngsters, and parents who aren’t so keen on technology, a Zoom dinner might be a complicated longshot. Someone’s internet is bound to go haywire, and grandma won’t figure out how to put herself on mute.
Instead, Hakim suggests taking the pressure off by having an off-screen toast with wine, coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. If you can figure out videoconferencing, great. If not, encourage everyone to send a selfie of their holiday setup and beverage of choice in a group chat. The photos will make you grin—and hopefully get you through the day.
For bonus points, send a bottle of bubbly (or another drink of choice) to everyone on your toast list so you’re all drinking the same thing.
7. Seek out and savor the positives.
Finding the silver lining during a trying time can be a tall order. Still, seeking, savoring, and honoring any and all wins— even if its just getting out of bed or sending a holiday card—is vital to mental and emotional health. Thomas calls this “reframing,” where one sees something from a different (or not solely negative) perspective, so the whole picture is accurately viewed and represented.
For example, instead of saying, “I’m not celebrating Christmas this year because I can’t be with my family,” rephrase it to, “I’m celebrating the end of a tough year, and the beginning of a bright future.” Or focus on other things (besides your far-off loved ones) that bring you joy: being home, activities you love, hobbies you enjoy, or (dare we say) meaningful work.
8. Take care of your health from the inside out.
Every part of our body is connected, and if we spend the next three months loading up on junk food, sweets, and treats; our mental state will be cloudy at best. Though many people turn to cravings to process their emotions, Thomas recommends prioritizing your personal health this (and every) holiday season.
“Make a conscious effort to get enough sleep, eat right, exercise, laugh, and get emotional support from loved ones to maintain your physical and emotional health,” she says. “The bottom line is…you still can find ways to broaden and add to your life and, as a consequence, grow emotionally stronger, even…when you might not be in person with your family and friends during the holidays.”