Find compassion with yourself to cope with the holidays

December 23, 2022
Anxious girl spending winter holidays alone and depressed. Image credit: iStock


For anyone dealing with an illness, grief or the loss of a loved one, the holidays can be a difficult time to cope, especially with the sights and sounds of happiness and cheer all around them. University of Michigan psychology professor Stephanie Preston suggests people in these situations should step back and focus on caring for themselves.

What should people keep in mind if they’re physically or mentally struggling?

People often experience illness and loss before a major holiday or are reminded of someone they lost who was usually present in special moments—a situation that is even more common since COVID-19.

It’s important to be compassionate with yourself. Don’t feel rushed to feel or act “better” or bursting with holiday joy if you just aren’t feeling it right now. You can also craft alternative ways to celebrate despite illness or loss, such as making something together or creating a ceremony that helps you remember someone or to show respect. Be self-aware if you are feeling down so that you do not take it out on others. Spillover from our own negativity that hurts someone else can happen to the best of us; if you do act out, it’s OK to just remove yourself from a situation and apologize after you have time to recover and reflect.

It’s also a time in which family and friends get together. How do you manage to keep the peace when you strongly disagree with the person sitting at the same table?

Despite almost unprecedented divisiveness or animosity between groups of late, there is good news: People generally share similar values and agree about more than they realize or are led to believe by social media. For example, people from opposing political parties think the other hates them more than is actually true. In addition, most people do believe in the science of COVID-19 and climate change.

If you find yourself in a sticky situation around the dinner table, try not to experience it as a personal attack. Feeling defensive or angry only limits the perspective-taking that we need to have a respectful conversation. Organizational psychologist and U-M alum Adam Grant advocates for adopting a mindset of humility and curiosity during such conversations. Anthropologist Elizabeth Keating describes the benefits of probing relatives like an anthropologist, seeking to listen and understand others’ experiences.

You might want to prepare what you will say in advance if you expect someone to upset you, to avoid acting on strong, momentary emotions. Ideally, we are measured and compassionate with those around us. But you should be compassionate with yourself if you do get drawn into an argument. Apologize if needed and give yourself permission to set boundaries or excuse yourself if the situation is overwhelming.

Some coping methods involve self-reflection. What are the signs that things have become too stressful, and at what stage would you recommend the individual seek professional help?

If the holidays produce an overwhelming amount of loneliness, anger or stress, you should step back and focus on caring for yourself. Danger signs include sleeping too much or too little, being quick to anger, and physiological cues like shortness of breath, elevated heart rate or panic. Monitor how you feel and reach out to a trusted friend or family member who you can talk to or that will help monitor your state to know when additional help is needed. Reach out to a therapist or primary care doctor if that happens. You can go to the hospital if the feelings are severe. Call or text the new suicide hotline number, 988, if you need to reach out but aren’t sure where to turn.

Coping might also include helping others during the holiday season, perhaps volunteering at a nursing home, church or soup kitchen. You’ve written “The Altruistic Urge.” What motivates this urge to help/protect others?

We possess a biological capacity to feel empathy and sympathy for others, which motivates us to help and even makes helping feel good. This urge to help is particularly strong in situations that resemble our ancient need to care for our own helpless or vulnerable offspring, relatives or group members who need urgent aid that we can provide.

In some ways, the holidays were designed to help us refocus our attention from our everyday problems so that we can collectively rest, reflect and find ways to give to others. This cultural practice can help families and communities come together in ways that elevate us all. Our altruistic instincts and the cultural practices that support them help us all survive and even thrive.

What is the best way to manage children’s present expectations, especially when times are financially tough for many families nationwide?

It helps to keep the focus of the holidays on what really matters and brings lasting joy. Research finds that genuine happiness comes from spending time with loved ones, providing for those less fortunate, and feeling grateful for what we do have. Being with others in times of joy can create what Barb Frederickson calls the “upward spiral” of positive emotions.

There’s nothing wrong with presents but it is also healthy to raise financially intelligent children with a realistic sense of how possessions cost money—a resource that is limited, not tied to happiness and not shared equally across families. Friends might receive gifts that you cannot have … and that’s OK. Just be mindful that children can internalize fear and insecurity about money concerns but can’t do anything about it, which is very stressful. So, keep the focus on what you do and can have over the financial concerns per se.

Many people will spend the holidays with loved ones. What would you recommend for those who will be alone?

Extensive research suggests that communing with others is good for your health and well-being. In contrast, loneliness undermines these positive outcomes. Note that being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. Many people find peace when they are alone—a state that they seek, by choice. Others benefit from company but are not sure where to turn.

The benefits of social interaction can be had without a classic holiday party or family dinner. A phone call to an old friend or a Zoom gathering with relatives helps us feel connected. Attending a community event also provides a feeling of togetherness, such as going to the outdoor ice-skating rink or light display at the zoo, shopping at local businesses or attending church services or a community potluck. One of the most powerful ways to “flip the script” when you are feeling down is to focus on how to help others, which we know feels good.