Not-so-Happy Holidays: Managing Painful Emotions

painful emotions

The festive period is often regarded as the ‘most wonderful time of the year’. However, for a lot of people, this holiday season is hard. Despite its challenges, the painful emotions associated with this period can often be managed with some planning.

Why the Holidays Can Be Hard

December is often filled with social gatherings, family events, work parties, and more. There is a lot of pressure to be social with people, and constant Christmas-related images on television and social media can mean there is very little escapism.

While it is a time of celebration for many, the holiday season also presents challenges, including:

  • Mental health – many people struggle with their mental health over the festive period. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, is prevalent over winter, as shortened daylight and less sunshine can disrupt the circadian rhythm, contributing to low mood and energy. Social anxiety can also be heightened over the festive season, especially with added pressure to socialise. Studies have shown that 64% of those with mental health conditions report them getting worse over the holiday period.[1]
  • Isolation – there is a lot of emphasis on spending time with friends and family over the holiday season. However, people can feel incredibly lonely and isolated during this time. The loss of a loved one who won’t be home to celebrate or difficult family situations can compound feelings of isolation, especially if people are no longer in contact with their family or friends.
  • Stress – the build-up to Christmas and the holidays is stressful. It can be even more stressful and overwhelming for those with family difficulties, financial difficulties, or mental health conditions. Some people may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like substance abuse, to manage their stress and the painful emotions accompanying it.
  • Past trauma – traumatic situations in the past can make the holidays a difficult time of the year. Traumatic childhood experiences around the holiday season or facing family members who were the cause of abuse, neglect, or trauma can increase people’s anxiety levels. Despite their experiences, people may be expected to put the past aside and interact with people who were the cause of many painful memories.

These sources of distress can cause symptoms such as dramatic mood shifts, a change in appetite, poor sleeping patterns, feelings of worthlessness, and guilt. Because of their feelings, some may isolate themselves further from their family and friends, which can worsen their emotions and make the festive period even more difficult.

Although this can make the holidays a difficult time, there are many ways that people can manage their painful emotions.

Coping Over the Holiday Period

The holiday season can be daunting, but there are ways to manage painful emotions:

  • Eradicate perfection – many people imagine a ‘perfect’ Christmas. Social media and movies portray the holidays as an idyllic, stress-free period to relax with their loved ones. However, this is often not a realistic expectation, and when people hold themselves to high expectations, it can cause more stress. The pressure of being the perfect host can make it harder to have fun and be present with loved ones. Forgoing the need for perfection can make the holidays more enjoyable and relaxing.
  • Set and maintain boundaries – there are often many events around the holiday season, and people can feel pressured to attend all of them. Firm boundaries can protect people from specific individuals, places, and even emotions that can trigger past trauma. Saying no to parties or refusing to see certain family members is a good protective measure that anyone can take to maintain their mental health and well-being over the holidays.
  • Make a plan – planning for parties, shopping, finances, and menus can save a lot of stress and give people more time to enjoy the festive period. When people know what events they will be attending, they can also plan for downtime or time for self-care.
  • Maintain healthy habits – people’s schedules often change over Christmas, and it can be challenging to prioritise your health through regular exercise and a healthy diet. Making the space and time to maintain good habits can help people manage stress and cope better in the face of upsetting situations.

Although the festive season is generally synonymous with celebration, friends and family, this isn’t the case for many people, especially those with a history of trauma. While Christmas is quite rightly a time for giving, it is equally important for people to focus on themselves and take the time to look after their mental health.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] “Mental Health And The Holiday Blues | NAMI: National Alliance On Mental Illness”. Nami.Org, 2014, Accessed 29 Nov 2020.