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Mental Health

Therapy Can Help You Cope With Holiday Grief

When I entered college as a freshman, I didn’t anticipate how difficult life would become for me later that school year, or how my mental health during the holidays would be impacted in the winter to come. I always envisioned – and experienced – Thanksgiving and Christmas as cheery and carefree, but after I lost my grandmother in March of 2020, the most wonderful time of the year became anything but. It was impossible to imagine the holidays without her, and when the time finally came everything was so different. But with the help of my therapist, I was able to navigate the new emotions I felt surrounding the holidays.

It was halfway through my second semester when I got the call that my Mimi was in the hospital, suffering a stroke. My campus was three hours from home, but my boyfriend took me there immediately, and I sat in the hospital for the entire next day, hoping that she would become conscious. Unfortunately she passed away before I ever got to speak with her again. While she was dying, I was inundated with notifications about my college shutting down due to the pandemic, adding to the pile of unexpected changes. I went on to spend an entire year trapped in my house to grieve with just my parents and my dog. There was no funeral, which led to no closure. Without seeing my friends or attending class to distract me, going to therapy helped me deal with my grief in productive ways. I spoke to my therapist weekly, and with her help I started to get better. 

I didn’t realize that I would revert to my worst once the holidays arrived. Every year, I’d go to Mimi’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I felt heartbroken when I realized that that wasn’t going to happen. I spent Thanksgiving sobbing in front of my parents in the kitchen, and at Christmas I was in unbelievable emotional pain. I spent most of the day playing Animal Crossing on my Nintendo Switch, which was my coping mechanism for most of quarantine. But my therapist taught me that while every “first” without someone will be incredibly difficult, it gets easier with time. I was so fortunate to have her available to me during those rough points, and I’m hopeful that with her help the holidays will feel better for me this year. If you’re feeling worried about the impacts of the holidays on your mental health this year, consider therapy to help you work through whatever it is that you need to. In the meantime, here are three things mental health experts suggest you do to start navigating the emotions brought on by the holiday season.

1. Set boundaries ahead of time.

Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, a therapist, practicing psychiatrist, and Chief Medical Officer of LifeStance Health, suggests setting boundaries with your family before the holidays even arrive. “The holidays are meant to be a happy, enjoyable experience to spend quality time with family and friends, take a break from school, work, etc.,” she tells Her Campus. “If we go into these situations anxious or stressed, it can sabotage the holidays for us.” But if you’re firm in your boundaries, it may help you manage difficult family dynamics or upsetting situations. 

For example, if you know a certain topic will be painful for you to hear about, request in advance that it not be brought up. If there are any triggering questions about your love life, your career path, or anything else, firmly warn ahead of time that you will not be acknowledging them. “Stay true to what feels right to [you], and steer clear of situations that may become triggers for heightened anxiety or stress,” Dr. Patel-Dunn adds.  

2. Acknowledge that the holidays aren’t perfect for everyone.

The holidays don’t have to be picture perfect, despite what your roommate’s Instagram may have you believing. “With social media, it can be easy to forget that everyone doesn’t have a picture perfect Thanksgiving table or traditional family dynamic,” Patel-Dunn warns. Although scrolling through your feed can make anyone believe that their family is the only one that fights,  social media is not a representation of the entire world. It’s okay if not everything goes according to plan around the holidays, and it’s okay to admit that something is wrong. 

3. Practice self-compassion.

When you have a strained relationship with your family, the pre-holidays can also lead to an increase in anxiety and negative feelings as you start to anticipate what may happen when you spend time with your family when the holidays arrive. It’s important to acknowledge your unique situation toward the holidays, and take care of your emotions. 

Kristen Papa, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for Living Open Hearted, tells her clients to practice self-compassion. “People often feel added pressure to be happy during the holidays, when they may really be hurting,” she tells Her Campus. “My clients and I talk about the importance of recognizing and validating their feelings for themselves and then practicing self-kindness regarding those emotions. We also visualize in advance how the holidays may [play out] and [the] feelings that may come up.” That way, you can anticipate the difficult scenarios that may pop up, and be prepared to deal with them, and learn how to give yourself grace.

According to a study from Sapien Labs, over 50% of people with underlying mental health concerns do not seek therapy. Not knowing what kind of help to seek is a big factor here, as is the stigma surrounding therapy, or believing that it won’t make a difference. The holidays can be extremely difficult, and if that’s the case for you, reaching out to a therapist is an amazing option to help ease the feelings you’re having – even if you try a therapist and don’t have a connection with them, there’s no harm in exploring other options until you find someone that works for you. Therapy isn’t one size fits all, nor is it a practice to look down on; having a healthy mind and heart can be hard when there are challenges, but therapists are there to help you get back on track when you’re struggling.

Studies Referenced:

Mental Health Million Project 2021. (2021) Mental Health Has Bigger Challenges Than Stigma. Sapien Labs. 

Expert Sources:

Anisha Patel-Dunn, Chief Medical Officer of LifeStance Health

Kristen Papa, LCSW for Living Open Hearted

Logan Swift

U Maine '23

Logan is a rising third-year student attending the University of Maine! She is a Her Campus editorial intern and the president of the Her Campus UMaine chapter. Outside of Her Campus, she loves photography, fitness, and playing some good 'ol Animal Crossing.
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