Christmas Self-Care: When the Holidays Hurt

Photo of Casey's family during their 10 year celebration of her Dad's life and heaven anniversary. Taken October 2019 in Vermont.
In my household, the day after Thanksgiving is the day Christmas music starts playing on the radio, decorations get brought down from the attic, and the fireplace is lit even if it is still 80 degrees outside because… Texas. Christmas is a season that can bring festive celebration, fun traditions, and magical memories that have sweet roots in our childhood.  For many people, that also means that the Christmas season brings up the painful memories of childhood. For some it’s trauma, or loss, or a harsh and current loneliness. Studies show that the Christmas season has been known to create mental stress, overwhelm, and/or deep emotional disturbances. So whether we experience mostly excitement and joy during this time of the year, or feel oppressed and saddened by all the décor and memories, it’s important to attend to our mental health needs. Here are some helpful tips on how to practice self-awareness, self-care, and self-compassion during the Christmas holiday season.

Personal Tragedy and Losing the Magic
I am the first of 5 kids in my family of origin, and Christmas was always a fun and important holiday when I was growing up. The McDonald family was a “hot mess” (like everyone else’s) the majority of the time, yet there was something special about Christmas time.  I realized not everyone had silly family traditions, sang happy birthday to Jesus with a coffee cake before running to the tree, or spent all day taking turns to slowly open gifts and discuss our gratitude for the previous year just to prolong the joy. Christmas day was a day full of magic. Everyone got along, everyone wore smiles, everyone celebrated Jesus together just like the movies whether or not we had money for gifts or homemade items that year. I am forever grateful for these memories. 

Then in October 2009, my Dad, our family’s rock, died suddenly before the holiday season began. The Christmas magic I had known for 22 years also died that year. Christmas became attached to trauma and thus was a reminder of my great loss and for several years, the struggle was devastating. As a Christ-follower, my belief and hope was not in this present life; I knew I would see my Dad again and I rejoiced. However, death and loss left a deep wound that needed healing. It was a long time after my personal tragedy that I was able to celebrate and enjoy Christmas without my dad. However, this year I’m busting out my decorations early and I can honestly say I feel the Thrill of Hope (aka magic) again.  

Grief and loss seem obvious following a death, yet suffering comes in all shapes, sizes, forms, and feelings: having your parents divorce, being let go from a job, receiving a devastating diagnosis, feeling trapped or stuck due to life’s responsibilities, losing a relationship, becoming disillusioned with ministry… Pain is pain, and everyone’s experience matters. Suffering whether it is old or new will affect our ability to celebrate. Spend time this year to take care of what’s affecting your Christmas.
Self-Awareness
The art of mindfulness is an empowering tool to help someone BE STILL in their mind, body, and spirit to NOTICE where the pain, disturbance, or discomfort is coming from.  Pain demands to be felt, seen, heard and thus requires healing. We, as a culture, are very good at ignoring and avoiding. Christmas is busy, but do not forget to take care of YOU. This year, take some time to simply notice. 
  1. Use a journal to record thoughts. 
  2. Go on a long walk without distractions to connect with your emotions.  
  3. Close your eyes and notice where you are holding the tension in your body. 
  4. Bring your awareness inward and stay in the present moment. 
For example, when I was in the middle of my loss I noticed avoidance of Christmas decorating. I noticed that I did not feel excited, that I wanted to enjoy traditions but did not. I noticed my grief, thoughts, and emotions, and they were messy… I didn’t like it, but I acknowledged them. I became aware of my own grief and healing needs slowly.  Take the time to pay attention to what you may be trying not to pay attention to! Put a name to it and form language around it. This self-exploration will provide information you can use for self-care. Be brave enough to explore what’s there!

Self-Compassion
Mindfulness allows someone to notice what is demanding attention, yet this self-awareness without self-compassion does not get very far.  Once you notice the painful memories there must be kindness towards yourself for change to happen! Many people resist and resent their own pain, their own negative thoughts, and emotions.  Acknowledge and fight to accept that it is okay to not be okay.  
  1. Treat yourself with the same tenderness you would a friend in your internal thoughts and self-talk and outward speech. 
  2. Once you label the emotion and identify the thought, gently encourage yourself to hold space for it to be present without judgement. 
  3. Embrace your emotions. When you do, it allows you to own them. When you own them, they don’t own you.
  4. Watch how kids release their emotions and thoughts unashamedly.  Practice that freedom in a safe place. 
For example, I leaned into my sadness and loss and told myself, “of course you resent Christmas, it’s another reminder of what you have lost”… I allowed the emotions of anger and distress a place at the table because it hurt.  I screamed at God in the car and just let it all hang out there, then received compassion and comfort from my Savior. Stop minimizing your pain and show yourself some grace. 

Self-Care

Once there is an understanding of self and there is compassion for the need to heal, then the real fun can take place. Self-care is a very individual personal experience. There is no “7 steps to a pain-free Christmas." However, there are some key components to consider.
I like to present Self-care in a Mind-Body-Spirit approach. 
  1. Mind: Give yourself a place to externalize your thoughts. Get them out on paper, call a friend, see a therapist to process what’s hidden. Ask yourself: What am I feeling today? What is bringing me joy or causing stress? What do I need? What can I let go of? Pain and Gratitude can co-exist, so also keep a gratitude journal or verbal ritual. 
  2. Body: Focus on nutrition and movement: How have I treated my body today? What is it telling me? Get out into nature, get sunlight, and fresh air, and space from the hustle. Prioritize proper sleep and practice breath work. Notice the shift in your body as you take care of these needs. 
  3. Spirit: Meditate on your truth, Pray, Seek inspirational music and art. Be around people that lift your spirits and set boundaries around those that suck it out. 
After actively seeking healing from trauma, I was able to think, feel, believe and experience freedom to enjoy the present.  I now joyfully celebrate Christmas, but my trauma and loss needed attending to and healing in order for the pain to not sabotage me. My healing journey led me to realize that Christmas itself held no magic. Rather, the magic was the beauty of love, intimacy, and joy with my family. It was how my parents and my Dad led our hearts to meditate on my God, the Good Father, who sent His Son, Jesus, our Hope, to this broken place so that this weary world could rejoice.
Casey West has been with ALCS since 2011 and counsels clients from our North Austin location. She counsels primarily teenagers and adults with a range of concerns and specializes in trauma work, mood disorders, chronic illness, and auto-immune disorders. Casey takes a holistic, multidimensional approach in her practice that incorporates biological, psychological, social, and spiritual perspectives. For more information about Casey's practice or to set up an appointment with Casey, call us today!
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