Chasing Away Holiday Pain

Samantha Stein
3 min readMay 21, 2024

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The United States has a number of holidays–federal, cultural, and religious. Some of them, such as Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day and Mother & Father’s Day, are laden with expectations, such as how we are expected to feel, who we’re supposed to celebrate with, and what that holiday is supposed to look like.

For many (if not most) people, one or more of these holidays can bring up less than joyous feelings. Some people don’t celebrate Christmas as their holiday. Others are without family on a day that many see as about family. Many are without a partner on Valentine’s Day–due to choice, loss, absence, or unfulfilled longing–or in an unhappy or dissatisfying union. Some people face the death of a parent on Mother’s or Father’s Day, others the death of a child or some level of estrangement. Or perhaps they were raised by someone other than their parent or are confused about how to acknowledge additional parents. Sometimes people live far from those they love, or can’t afford to participate in the holiday in the way they would like.

Whether expressed through advertisements, others’ expectations, or cultural stories, our society creates high expectations for these holidays and others. When those expectations are not met, this can create feelings of grief, longing, inadequacy, loneliness, anxiety, strain on already frayed relationships, and even depression. These feelings are often exacerbated by the presence of social media and our perception that others are joyful and we are alone in our struggles.

This feeling of isolation–loneliness–can trigger the body to produce extra cortisol, the stress hormone, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Other effects of loneliness include headaches, sleep disturbances, digestive problems, and poorer brain function.

Taking care of oneself, therefore, is extremely important during holidays that bring up these kinds of feelings. The following are some of the ways it can be helpful to make it through these holidays in a healthy, and even happy, manner:

  1. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and find healthy ways to cope with them. Trying to force yourself to feel differently, suppress feelings, or using substances or activities to try to make them go away often exacerbates the pain. Most of the time, if you let yourself feel your feelings in a healthy way, they can move through you and pass and you will feel okay.
  2. Connect to supportive others. Whether it be family, friends, or a supportive community, it can really help to connect with supportive others, even if it’s just a quick phone call, video chat, meeting, or text message.
  3. Do things you enjoy, like reading, listening to music, going for a walk, spending time in nature, seeing a movie or going to a museum.
  4. Focus on gratitude. In the face of what you don’t have, it can be difficult to remember all that you do. Make a list of five things you are grateful for and focus on the things on that list.

Finally, it may be time to make a new ritual–in the long term, this may be the most empowering and helpful thing to do. Think about creating something to do on that day that is meaningful and fulfilling to you, either alone or with others in a similar situation. Perhaps you organize an “orphan’s christmas” or create a valentine’s day with your closest friends. You use mother’s day to honor someone who was there for you as a child or even helped you grow as an adult. Think about how you can create a holiday so that one day a year is meaningful and moving for you–about what you do have rather than what you don’t.

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Samantha Stein

I’m a writer, photographer, and psychologist who (monthly) explores self, relationships, and mental health in an ever-changing world.