By ANGELA FOLDS
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year … ”
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ Let your heart be light/ From now on, our troubles will be out of sight”
“Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la la la la!”
The sounds of the season bring sentiments of joy, merriment, peace, and glad tidings. Yet, on this Christmas Day perhaps you’re feeling more melancholy than merry, more burdened than bright.
“Maybe this year was a painful one for you. Maybe you lost a loved one, lost a job, moved, or just didn’t have things go like you’d expected them to. Add to that the holiday season’s emphasis on the merry and the happy, and you may find yourself feeling isolated and lonely; like the only person who’s not feeling the joy. You may have expected these feelings to arise, or they may have taken you by surprise,” said licensed psychologist Stephanie Insko, PhD.
Three Brentwood specialists — Dr. Insko, along with Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Teri Murphy, and Certified Professional Addiction/Recovery Coach David Hampton — share their perspectives on experiencing Christmas and New Year’s through sadness, loss, and/or addiction.
“The connection between pain and joy is clear – if you want to feel joy, you have to be able to feel pain. And if you numb the pain, you numb the joy,” Murphy said “A person in pain during the holidays, unable to really get away from all the reminders of the season, may feel lonelier and more depressed than usual. The stark contrast between those who appear happy and carefree and those who are suffering can make it feel worse.”
Murphy suggests practicing self-compassion as a coping strategy.
“Self-compassion is treating oneself with kindness, non-judgment, and accepting that suffering is part of the human experience (we are not alone in suffering). Self-compassion buffers us from anxiety, depression, shame, unhealthy relationships, and gives us space to be ourselves exactly as we are. Suffering is suffering. There is no comparing one loss or pain to another. Your suffering matters. Engaging in prayer, meditation, presence, yoga, being in nature, silence, or resting can all be restorative and self-compassionate,” she said.
Oftentimes, holiday season brings out negative emotions as past hurts resurface in conjunction with obligatory family gatherings. Murphy says it is imperative to set good boundaries with family members.
“Make sure that you have time to be alone or with a safe other to process whatever comes up while with family. Text or talk with your close person (before you go, while you’re there, after you leave), take a walk, or do some yoga stretches. It’s important to practice good self-care. We have to fill up our own tanks and take care of ourselves in order to have the energy to be with others,” Murphy said.
Winning the addiction battle
Christmas and New Year’s festivities also present unique challenges for those who battle addictions.
“Struggles with addiction can be exacerbated by the expectations that come with this season more than any other,” said David Hampton, Certified Professional Addiction/Recovery Coach. “For many alcoholics, there are often pleasant memories of the holidays, which makes it easy to believe that they can relive those experiences if they could just manage a couple of drinks. Sadly, those were mostly our alcohol-induced perceptions that left us early on as the disease took over our lives rendering us powerless over the effects of a substance.”
So, how does an alcoholic or addict spend Christmas and New Year’s in as safe a way as possible without alienating themselves and isolating?
“One way is to realize, especially in early sobriety, that we need a new normal. This includes new traditions. Doing something in a new way, or with different people than perhaps we did in the past. Create some new traditions that take the focus off of what you aren’t doing and learn to enjoy what you are doing,” Hampton said.
Hampton recommends volunteer and service work as a way to take the focus off feelings of deprivation.
“We can also build ‘off ramps’ for ourselves in social situations. Drive yourself to the Christmas party so you can leave if you need to. There is no need to be stranded if you feel triggered and uncomfortable when the lampshades start coming off at the office party.
Always have a planned way out. Phone numbers of sober friends, friends in recovery, and sponsors are important to have on hand,” he said.
Additionally, Hampton offers the following advice for maintaining sobriety during the holidays:
- Stay active and get exercise. Inactivity will breed discontentment and create too much time to reflect on what is missed about the old days.
- Maintain your recovery meeting schedules. Recovery community offers valuable coping tools from those who have been sober longer.
- Have gratitude for your loved ones, families, partner/spouse.
- Avoid self-imposed exile. If you opt-out of certain events for healthy reasons find an alternative event instead. Isolation and addiction are like gasoline and matches.
- Rehearse what you will say when offered a drink. You don’t need to offer details or explanations, a simple, “I’m good for now, thanks” or “A Diet Coke would be great,” will suffice.
- Know your exit plan and don’t apologize for not staying longer than you should.
- Be a part of the crowd. Attend community Christmas festivals, street fairs, make a mug of hot chocolate and drive around to see the Christmas lights.
- Keep the focus on what you get to enjoy now through a sober lens as opposed to what you’ve given up.
“Remember that what we get to have now are our memories and the love and respect of those around us rather than focusing on alcohol as something we have had to give up. The truth is, we can drink anytime we want to. We choose not to because of the bigger reasons in our lives that we have finally embraced. Enjoy the bigger reasons! This season is about new birth and hope and no one has more to celebrate than a person who is finding their way down the path of sobriety and recovery. Celebrate your new way of being, thinking, believing, and responding. Revel in the fact that you are emotionally present again and that your memories will actually remain with you. Practice mindfulness and the art of serenity by being extremely intentional about how you allow your holiday to shape itself,” Hampton said.
If you’re feeling stuck in your depression, pain, sadness, anger, loss, or addictions there are professionals trained to help.
“Therapists work to help clients feel safe, process their experiences from a nonjudgmental stance, and help them find solutions that work. Sometimes, just walking through your story with another person, having a witness to your life, can be incredibly healing,” Murphy said.
Chronicle the feelings and emotions you are experiencing today and through the New Year in a journal. Seek professional assistance as needed.
For further information on practicing self-compassion, Murphy recommends Dr. Kristin Neff’s website, www.self-compassion.org, which offers free tools and resources. Self-compassion buffers us from anxiety, depression, shame, unhealthy relationships, and gives us space to be ourselves exactly as we are.
The National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day- a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
If you or someone you know are struggling with suicidal thoughts, call 1-800- 273-8255 for 24/7 free and confidential support.
Dealing with grief during the holidays
Dr. Stephanie Insko advises:
1. Don’t try to push the grief away; it’s a normal reaction to your loss. Give that loss the attention it deserves by allowing yourself to experience the difficult emotions that go along with it. Think of your grief like a teakettle: let some feelings out here and there to keep it from boiling over.
2. Remember that grief is a process with no set endpoint. And that process takes work. You’re getting used to life without the lost person or thing. And you’re not “moving on” and forgetting the relationship you had, you’re simply writing a new chapter in that relationship.
3. Keep in mind that all of that grief work can be tiring. Figuring out this new phase in your life can drain you. So, during this harried season, take extra time to replenish yourself. Find what is relaxing and give yourself the gift of rejuvenation.
4. Let others in on your process. Answer friends and family honestly when they ask how you’re doing; don’t assume they’re tired of hearing about your loss. More than likely, they want to support you through this time.
But if you feel like you can’t talk to them about it, reach out to a trusted other, whether it’s a clergy member, a healthcare provider, or a professional in the mental health field. Grief should not be done alone.
Stephanie Insko, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Brentwood. She works with adults individually and with couples, as well as with adolescents. In addition to grief and loss, Stephanie specializes in the treatment of depression, anxiety, relationship concerns, and phase-of- life issues.
Stephanie Insko, PhD
7003 Chadwick Drive, Suite 152
Brentwood, TN 37027
Teri Murphy, LMFT specializes in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a short-term, systematic, and tested intervention to reduce distress in relationships and create more secure attachment bonds.
Teri Murphy Counseling
301 Mallory Station Road
Franklin, TN 37067
For 20 years, David Hampton served as Director of Worship Arts at Christ Community Church in Franklin. He is now a full-time Certified Professional Recovery Coach.
David Hampton, CPRC
5409 Maryland Way, Suite 305