Be gentle with yourself this holiday

Whether people celebrate Christmas in the established way or not, the end of year holiday season is commonly a time when family and friends get together.

Unfortunately, the reality of Christmas for so many people is not like the movies at all – instead it is often fraught with tension, stress, loneliness and sadness.

The gathering of friends and family can quickly turn into disharmony as age-old family tensions surface and old patterns of dysfunctional interactions among people manifest themselves, despite all good intentions.

There are those who are not able to get together with loved ones for various reasons. Many people will be working in jobs that do not allow them time off. Some people simply don’t have family or friends with whom to get together.

Others don’t have the means to buy special food or other items or travel to far away relatives, and yet others may be estranged from their families and are no longer welcome at the holiday dinner table.

So what can be done to combat the potential stress and loneliness of the holiday season?

Rethink the meaning of Christmas

Think about Christmas not as a time, nor as a season, but rather as a state of mind.

Get back to the deeper meaning of Christmas – cherishing peace and goodwill, being mindful of those less fortunate and offering unconditional love to yourself and others, at least in your mind, if you cannot do this in action.

This may not be easy, especially if you struggle with difficult family members or there is an ongoing family conflict.

A more tolerant mindset, including of your own limitations, which we all grapple with, will go a long way in helping alleviate the Christmas blues.

Set an intention

Take a moment to really consider how you want to be throughout the holidays.

If you’re going to be with family and friends, how would you like to be with them – present, listening, playful or engaging in a way that is safe for you. The holidays may be a difficult or grieving time for you this year. If so, how can you be gentle with yourself?

Be present

It is helpful to integrate some practices that bring you to the present moment. This might be a mindfulness practice such as using your breath as an anchor.

Close your eyes, notice your breath as if for the first time, following the in breath and the out breath; notice where you feel it the most, your nostrils, your chest, your abdomen. If your mind wanders off, notice where it goes with curiosity not judgement and gently bring it back to your breath. All you need to do this is three to five minutes on a regular basis and a quiet place.

Give the gift of you

If you struggle with loneliness, which will be especially amplified during the festive time, know that in all likelihood, you are not the only person spending the festive season on your own.

There will be many people in hospices, children’s homes, hospitals and old-age homes, for example, who may not have a single visitor. Pop in and pay a visit to someone who has no visitors. Ask them if you can sit with them, talk to them or read them a story.

Connecting and sharing yourself with others in meaningful ways, has been shown to alleviate depression, improve immune function, reduce pain, enhance attentiveness, decrease blood pressure and calm the heart rate.

Reframe compulsory work into a choice

If you are obliged to work for whatever reason, try to reframe a “bad deal” into a good one.

There is nothing wrong with a limited time for venting frustration but then get on with your day.

Choose to make the day for you and those working with you special in some way.

Invite others to join you

Spend the weeks coming up to Christmas catching up with old friends, acquaintances and colleagues – and find out who else will be alone for Christmas.

Invite them to join you. Ask everyone to contribute to the meal in some way – either with food or fun activities to entertain you all.

Limit your alcohol intake though as excessive use of alcohol can contribute toward anxiety and a depressed mood.

Own your alone time

If you usually work long hours in a stressful job, a few days which you can dedicate completely to yourself – guilt-free – is a wonderful present. Do only those things you want to do. Find out what you’ve always wanted to do and never had the time to, and indulge in some pleasurable activities that won’t necessarily empty out your pocket.

Make the connection

Even if you physically can’t be with family or friends, you can, thanks to the wonders of technology, do the next best thing.

Spending 20 uninterrupted minutes catching up with a loved one on Skype or over the phone will boost your mood for a long time afterwards.

Get out and about

If you live in an area where it is possible, and safe to do so, going for a walk or run is a simple and cost-free way to reduce feeling down-hearted and increase happiness.

Even a brief walk at low intensity can improve your mood and increase energy, and as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can have a positive effect. Put on your radio and dance wildly in your kitchen, enjoy fun and outdoor activities with children or play with your pet. Walk on the beach or out in nature, notice others and allow yourself to feel a connection to them, as part of the human family.

Go on holiday with yourself

If you know in advance that you’re going to be alone over the holidays, book yourself a getaway at a spiritual retreat, campsite, spa, game reserve, chalet in the mountains, cottage at the beach anywhere you enjoy going and that is fitting to your personal budget. Spend the time getting to know a new place, or revisiting a favourite spot.

Wishing you a safe and peaceful holiday.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.