Why it's OK to feel bad around the holidays

UAlberta mental health experts provide advice for working through the myriad of emotions that arise over Christmas.

Every Christmas, Deena Hamza is reminded that her father isn't around to share in the festivities. "He passed away when I was 12. Every holiday and milestone is hard because the loss is rehashed all over again," said Hamza, who has a doctorate in psychiatry and is currently a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Alberta's Department of Family Medicine.

"I used to ruminate on this loss a lot. And I would feel bad about feeling bad."

That's because our culture may not accept the timing and duration of emotional expression-and certainly not during a time when there's pressure to be joyful, she added.

"We don't allow ourselves to feel. Instead, we push for a fix-it approach. But it's OK to live and feel the emotions that you do," said Hamza. "Look, we all experience mixed emotions over the holidays. What's important is understanding why we have these feelings, which will then help with ways of dealing with them."

Peter Silverstone, a psychiatrist at the U of A, also encourages the simple activity of listening closely to others over the holidays.

"We all ask others how they are doing, and the answer is usually 'OK,' but if you hear any hesitancy or pause, or if they sound flat, ask more questions," he encouraged. "Taking an interest and identifying with friends and family can make a huge difference to those around you. The benefit is that it helps others who may be feeling isolated feel connected. Also, that support is preventive. A trouble shared is a trouble halved."

In the spirit of holiday giving, Hamza offered up her three-step approach to managing negative feelings over the holidays (or any time of year). She and other U of A experts also offered up tips for a few specific emotions you may experience.

Step 1: Allow yourself to feel what you're feeling.

This is harder than you may think, advised Hamza, because our society strives for quick fixes over long-term effort.

"In the past, I would actually try to avoid the feeling of sadness that I had at the holidays. But over the years, I've asked myself, 'Why not just feel a little sad for now?'"

She explained that being honest with yourself about your feelings hinges on self-reflection and requires authenticity in the moment.

How long should you "sit next to" the different emotions that may arise?

"Some people can bounce out of emotions, others may take longer. It's variable," she said, adding that if your emotions interfere with your day-to-day activities, then you may need to talk to a professional (and you should also apply the next steps regardless).

Step 2: Take a look at feeling gratitude.

Ask yourself, 'What do I have to be grateful for?' suggested Hamza. "I'll even write down a list of things, and inevitably, the list of things I am grateful for is longer than what I am upset about," she said.

"When you feel emotional pain of any kind, at the same time, thinking of the things you are grateful for helps put things into perspective, and the focus is on your strengths rather than what you don't have, which can be empowering."

Step 3: Focus on options.

"Tell yourself this is my situation now. How can I make it better?" said Hamza. "I'm sad I don't have my dad over the holidays and I see others with their whole families and it hurts me. What can I do?"

Hamza said she and her family go to her father's grave with flowers every Christmas and share their favourite memories of him, which has helped her maintain a strong connection-something she's still fearful of losing. "That's my option rather than ruminating on what would/could/should have been. Now what's yours?" she asked.

In an ideal world, we would tend to our self-care year-round so we have a toolbox of resources we can go to in times of stress or distress, pointed out Hamza. "I often find-and I have been guilty of this in the past-that the focus on self-care is not proactive, but reactive. When we are struggling emotionally, we're frantically looking for ways to cope. Trying to master self-care during these times can become frustrating."

Instead, Hamza suggests a proactive approach to self-care: building your "emotional toolbox" with daily purposeful activities. "Your emotional toolbox should contain long-term, lasting things that are just for you and that make you feel good, like a yoga class, setting time aside to read or booking a dinner with friends once a week, so you have positive outlets when you need them emotionally."

Here are some suggested options for different scenarios that may cause emotional distress.

You've lost a loved one, are away from a loved one or have had a recent breakup.

While you may feel a sense of isolation and ruminate over what could or should have been, some options for you may include connecting with your social network and spending time with loved ones.

"If you don't have anyone, you can volunteer," said Hamza. "Part of the benefit of volunteering is that it boosts your mood." The point is to connect with others and realize you are part of a community.

You're in the middle of a conflict.

"Look at the holidays as an opportunity to reconnect-when you can practise self-acceptance and understanding," said Hamza. "Of course it depends on the level of conflict, but maybe a detente can be established for the holiday period."

You're worried about the holidays being perfect.

"It's important to continuously remind ourselves to set realistic expectations," said Jaleh Shahin, a psychologist with the Office of Learner Advocacy & Wellness in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. "Be aware that there is a disconnect between how the holidays are portrayed in media and what is reality."

Reframe your concern, added Hamza. "Think through what's the worst thing that can happen and then put a positive or lighthearted spin on that outcome."

You're overspending or living beyond your means.

"Set a budget! You could also set some boundaries with yourself and your loved ones about the extent of gift giving that will occur," said Shahin.

You're trying to stick to your anti-consumerism principles.

"Make your viewpoint clear to everyone, but also let them know you will partake in the holidays by being present and gifting others in non-material ways," said Hamza. "It's okay to be authentic and say, 'This is my viewpoint, but I respect yours and ask you to respect mine.' Christmas is an excellent time to practise acceptance," she added.

You're tired of being "on" all the time.

"A lot of people think I'm an extrovert, but I'm actually an introvert," said Hamza. Therefore, when she's socializing she finds opportunities to take a break. "I'll help out in the kitchen just to recharge and regroup." Depending on how well people know Hamza, she will simply say she needs a little downtime to herself.

"Being honest with yourself and others is really the best way you can cope with tough feelings any time of year," she said. "This level of raw authenticity can be scary in the sense of feeling vulnerable; however, it often leads to open-heartedness, realizing you are not alone, and inevitably contributes to inner peace."