Growing up Muslim, Christmas was when I would pick up extra shifts to cover for coworkers who were out of town to see their families. I didn't have a Christmas tree and couldn't sing the words to the season's greatest hits. Overall, the holidays were just another time when I wished the sun would set a little later. However, when I saw colorful advertisements filled with candy canes, ornaments, and posts from friends about the most wonderful time of year, I wondered if I was missing out on something special.
I'm not the only one with a challenging relationship with the holidays. In addition to those of us who didn't grow up with the traditions we see during this time of year, many people may be experiencing loss, navigating strained relationships with family members, or overcoming the challenges of entering a new life stage. That's why Israa Nasir, therapist and founder of digital mental health brand Well.Guide, encourages you to have grace for yourself when navigating this season.
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"The holidays can trigger feelings of loss for folks who are estranged from their family," Nasir explains. "Sometimes, you must grieve the family or traditions you once had or wish you had. The holidays can bring that pain back up."
Keep reading for Nasir's tips on creating your own holiday traditions and prioritizing your mental health this season.
Listen to Yourself (and Your Body)
The first part of processing grief during the holidays is acknowledging your feelings. It can be tempting to disregard your feelings and distract yourself, but Nasir says it's helpful to check in with yourself and listen to your body. See if you can name some of the emotions, thoughts, or body sensations you're experiencing.
Track your moods and signals in your body through a routine check-in practice like journaling, writing in your notes app, or recording voice memos. In my case, I've found that I start to feel more anxious around the holidays, and I may even feel more lonely because I'm comparing myself to other people on social media who seem to be much more connected to their loved ones.
"You may start to recognize a pattern around Thanksgiving or Christmas where you start to feel down or isolated from your friends," Nasir says. "You'll start to feel it in your body first, which can manifest as tiredness, a feeling in your stomach, or a sense of anxiety."
There's usually a lot to juggle during the holidays, which can create more stress. Avoid scheduling back-to-back dinners and meet-ups, and leave yourself extra time to buy gifts or set up your space if you're hosting others. If you regularly see a therapist, you may also schedule additional sessions leading up to the holidays.
"Develop clear boundaries with your time and energy," Nasir says. "If someone depletes your energy, you may not want to see them during the holidays. It can help to create time to decompress and actively rest through meditation, journaling, or activities that keep you grounded."
Create Your Own Traditions and Reclaim the Holidays
To make the holidays feel more special and festive, Nasir encourages you to create new traditions with people you feel safe with, whether that's your partner, family (related or chosen), or coworkers. These traditions don't have to be preset customs or activities you've done in the past—they just have to make sense for you.
Nasir says that your traditions could be creating food specific to your culture or heritage instead of preparing a turkey at Thanksgiving or scheduling a new activity with loved ones. The key is to find traditions that are meaningful to you to cultivate a sense of belonging.
“If you’re celebrating with your chosen family, you could host a potluck where each person brings food that’s special to them,” Nasir suggests. “My husband and I watch the same Frank Sinatra movie about New York every Christmas because we love the city, and it makes us feel connected to each other.”
I’ve employed this strategy when I spend Christmas with my fiancée and her family, which we celebrate by wearing matching pajamas for family photos, participating in a white elephant gift exchange, and making paroles, which are traditional Filipino star-shaped lanterns. My fiancée and I also pick ornaments for each other that we add to the Christmas tree in our living room, which I decorated for the first time with her.
Nasir acknowledges you may be tempted to replicate traditions from the past exactly or reject them, but ideally, you want to find a middle ground that fits into your life now. I’ve gotten to participate in new traditions with my fiancée’s family as well as doing a smaller celebration with just her, which we spend decorating our tree, visiting holiday markets to support local businesses, and watching holiday movie releases on Netflix.
Of course, the holidays aren’t always full of hot cocoa and gift exchanges. There might be a time when you’re having challenging conversations about identity and mental health. In these instances, Nasir says that it helps to plan what you want to say and discuss with someone you trust, like a therapist or close friend.
“There’s no right place to have a tough conversation, but it helps to let the other person know that you’re going to say something important,” Nasir says. “Have an aftercare plan, especially if things get heated, which could involve calling a friend or going to a nearby café.”
As you navigate the holidays as an adult, find what works for you.
Though they may feel complicated and conflicted, emotions are normal to experience. You may feel excited about new traditions while grieving the loss of old ones, and that’s valid—there’s no right way to navigate the holidays. The best thing you can do is find ways to take care of your emotional health throughout the year so this season doesn’t become a tipping point and check in with yourself, so you know when to ask for help when you need it.
“As you navigate the holidays as an adult, find what works for you,” Nasir says. “And remember that you don’t have to navigate them alone.”