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Gratitude, Boundaries, and other Important Holiday Cliches

In order to satisfy my need to be different and stand out, I was hoping to think of another topic to write about besides the very cliche therapist trend of how to have good boundaries during the holiday season to maintain peace of mind or why gratitude is so important. But I also really value seasonal themes, as staying connected to the changing seasons helps manage anxiety and depression. Sadly, it just so happens that this particular season can be very triggering for both anxiety and depression, from the end of daylight savings bringing more darkness to our day and the onset of colder weather for some, to the all-encompassing stresses of the holiday season. In my brief research to see if there were other relevant November topics that relate to mental health I learned that earlier this month we observed National Stress Awareness Day, which goes hand in hand with the tone of the rest of the year for most of us. So, here I sit on the eve of Thanksgiving, ready to share my thoughts on how to stay emotionally healthy during this holiday season, as the festivities and family time really will be the focal point for many of us for the rest of the year and truly do bring such a mixed bag of joy and stress.

My Secret Weapon: Intention

It's that busy time of year. For some of us, the busy season started in August or September with back to school. For others it's Halloween and all of the decorating, costume planning, and parties that mark the beginning of the end of the year. And for everyone else, it officially starts tomorrow -though capitalism and Black Friday will tell you otherwise. All of these events and holidays started with intention and ritual, but overtime have become overrun with stress, anxiety, and business. From September to December, the calendar is packed, the expenses soar, and self care goes out the window. It has become a season of performance and obligation for many. Who has the best costume, which viral TikTok recipe should I bring to Thanksgiving, is my Christmas tree Pinterest perfect? On the obligatory side it's familial expectations around the amount of time we spend on each given holiday with either side of the family, older generations picking at newer parenting choices, and passive aggressive comments as we pass around the pumpkin pie. So much pressure, resentment, and coordination that we can barely connect with the joy. My solution to this madness is intention. Being intentional forces us to stop and reflect on purpose and meaning. Intention brings slowness and invites us to reconnect with ourselves. We actively look at our own priorities and values and make decisions based off of those, rather than out of obligation, avoidance, fear or guilt. By using intention as our guide to decision making throughout this holiday season, we can better navigate all of the stresses it brings, and also better appreciate the time we spend with our loved ones.

Thanksgiving Gratitude

Earlier I said that all of the holidays and even back to school started with intention and ritual. We all know the story of Thanksgiving and the feast the pilgrims shared with the Native Americans to give thanks for the harvest. This story does not paint an accurate picture of what the dynamic really was between the colonists and Native Americans, but the tradition of intentionally reflecting on what we are grateful for is a wonderful exercise. A quick Google search will reveal that regularly writing a gratitude list is an excellent coping strategy to manage both anxiety and depression. The idea is if your brain is busy thinking of things to be grateful for, there is no space to think about the things that worry you, and the more gratitude you have the more your mood will lift. So if you are one who is impacted by the decrease in sunlight and gloomier weather, find yourself worrying about what cringe worthy topic will come up at the Thanksgiving table, or have your stomach in a knot thinking about how you are going to get all of your gift shopping done in time for the December holidays, go ahead and take a moment to participate in those cliche Thanksgiving conversations and reflect on the things you have to be grateful for. This activity can be challenging at first if you have not practiced it before as all of a sudden your mind might go blank, but don't be discouraged. Start small and think obvious and overdone - "I'm grateful to be alive," "I'm thankful for my bed," "Thank God coffee exists," "I'm grateful for music," "Thank you universe I survived this evening of forced small talk." Really whatever comes to mind, and keep practicing. You'll be surprised how effective it can be.

Healthy Boundaries

Okay so we have our approach of intention and our useful coping skill of gratitude. Now it's time to talk boundaries. Whether this word makes you roll your eyes, cringe, or sigh with relief, healthy boundaries are a critical part of surviving this season of togetherness. Regardless of what your gatherings look like, intimate affairs with just your closest friends or an extended family reunion, it's important to remember that the intention behind coming together is to have some feel good quality time with those you love. The problem is that everyone has a different definition of what feels good. Your in laws who traveled across the country to celebrate Thanksgiving with you might find it perfectly reasonable to expect that you come up with plans to keep them entertained everyday they are in town. Perhaps Grandma has a strict tradition that everyone attends church on Christmas morning before presents are opened, which will not bode well with your four year old or Atheist husband. The examples of expectations that create stress and anxiety around family and the holidays are endless. When we bring intention into our boundary setting we allow ourselves to take a step back, reflect on what our values and priorities are as they relate to spending time with family and friends during the holidays, and then proceed accordingly. Opt out of the church service to avoid the tantrum if that's what feels better for you and your family. Kindly tell your in laws what plans sound doable to you and which days you plan to laze around the house. Remind those older family members that you don't force your children to eat everything on their plate if they don't want to or hug family members if they don't feel like it. You don't have to go along with what is expected of you and you don't owe anyone an explanation. These may be unpopular opinions that rock the boat, and you can factor in dealing with people's reactions into your decision making as well. Limit your time if your boundaries won't be respected, think about whether attending will really even be worth the stress and emotional toll.

For those of you who are new to setting these types of boundaries, all of this may sound quite anxiety provoking. Again, the point is to be intentional and act based on your own personal values and priorities. Perhaps tradition and keeping the peace is more important. That's okay too. My hope here is really to invite you just to take a step back from the expectations and pressures of this season that often chip away at the joy we are supposed to have, and reflect on what these holidays mean to you and what you want from them. If you are intrigued by these ideas, but don't quite know how to go about making these shifts, talking to a therapist is a great way to start and get some extra support during this busy time of year.

Happy Holidays!

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