Happy Holidays…Not Necessarily So

5 ways and 3 activities to avoid falling into the negative thinking traps of the holiday season.

This time of year, holiday euphoria bursts into our lives as people whip themselves into a frenzy thicker than the marshmallow topping on a Thanksgiving sweet potato soufflé. Shopping lists, holiday meal plans, and travel logistics loom larger than the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

At the same time, seasonal depression rates spike. Feelings of melancholy and sadness are especially high among millions of children, teens and families grappling with illness. Instead of spending hours pondering what Chanukah gifts to buy or which stocking stuffer is “perfect” for each person, families experiencing illness focus on getting through each day.

Being bombarded with exuberant holiday music for hours, days or weeks can evoke negative responses from people already feeling vulnerable during the holidays. “Perfect family holiday tableaus” appear everywhere creating a tsunami of holiday-hoopla that makes people feel even worse about their current situation. This reaction is what psychologists call Social Comparison Theory, more commonly known as “Compare and Despair” Syndrome. Hearing about all the wonderful holiday celebrations and plans can trigger woeful sentiments such as “Everyone else is feeling exuberant and joyful, what’s wrong with me?”

How to Avoid Falling into This Negative Thinking Trap
Dr. Karen Reivich and Dr. Andrew Shatte explain several common thinking traps in their book, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles (Random House, 2003). Enforced holiday glee triggers the Magnifying and Minimizing Thinking Trap where a person focuses on negative aspects of a situation which magnifies the impact while de-emphasizing the positive aspects of a situation.  Maximizing thinking could sound something like,

“Mark is so weak now, I feel like our family will NEVER be able to enjoy holiday celebrations again…”

However, when we take the time to analyze things that “trigger” powerful feelings and negative emotions, often looking at the facts and understanding the underlying thinking can help us self-sooth ourselves, minimizing painful emotions the next time an activating situation occurs.  This thought process is called Re-framing.

One way that hospitalized children, teens and their family members can begin to experience greater optimism during the holidays (and all year long) is a process called re-framing. Re-framing is the ability to look beyond the negative or painful aspects of an illness or hospitalization and to see and appreciate some of the special or awe-inspiring moments that happen. Glass half full, glass half empty… when you focus on small or heroic acts of progress that a child or teen has taken in her recovery you are re-framing a difficult situation to focus on hope and resilience instead of despair.  When you appreciate a kind gesture from a nurse or hospital volunteer experiencing the goodness in another person with no ulterior motive except to make you feel loved and supported, that’s re-framing by accepting something good even in the midst of hardship.

Why Does the Holiday Season Actually Make People Feel Anxious and Downtrodden?
Perhaps the best holiday example of all time that triggers Social Comparison and also motivates people to fall into Negative Thinking Traps is none other than New Year’s Eve: the only holiday that bridges the old and new year simultaneously.

New Year’s Eve is stacked with impossible-to-achieve expectations that Everybody (note the capital “E”) is having a rip-roarin’ great time. These super-sized expectations naturally start to generate built-in anticipatory stress that the holidays will be happy, happy, happy. Just like in the movies. Social media plays a large role in increasing social comparison. Recently Morning Edition on National Public Radio (NPR, May 2, 2017) hosted a segment entitled Why Social Media Isn’t Always Very Social. According to Barbara Kahn, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies decision-making, social media generates a lot of FOMO which stands for Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO is another way people experience the false belief that  “Everyone (again note the capital “E”) is having a better time than I am.”

Five Simple Things You Can Do to Reduce “Happy Holiday” Burn-Out
If you or someone you know is going through medical challenges during this holiday season you might want to read these five easy action steps to help reduce holiday stress. Better yet, share this post with your friends and family and then talk about something simple that you can do together to make the holidays more meaningful.

1. This is the perfect time to PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION (or give someone permission to put his or her self-interest first) in order to confidently say “NO” to invitations or plans that seem overwhelming or impossible to participate in at this time. Simply explain that you and your family are not able to attend the family’s annual holiday tradition this year. Remember, “No” is a complete sentence.

2. Choose activities that are calming and cozy. Instead of focusing on what you and your family are NOT able to do during the holidays, it can be refreshing and even fun to do something different, like movie night – make sure you pick comedies and films with upbeat stories. Perhaps a scaled-down holiday meal where everyone comes in their PJs would be fun or a holiday get-together where everyone eats desserts first or, better yet, a get-together where you ONLY SERVE DESSERTS eliminating hours of preparation and expense from the rest of the meal.

3. Incorporate rituals that add meaning and joy. Last year my dad’s health was declining significantly and I wanted to do something positive to counter the sadness we were all experiencing. Prior to Thanksgiving, I sent everyone in my family a package with six blank cards and envelopes inviting them to participate in the First Annual Post-Thanksgiving Family Gratitude Circle. The instructions were simple each person wrote a Gratitude Letter to each person in our family. During Friday night dinner, on the day after Thanksgiving, each person brought a stack of six sealed envelopes to the table. Starting with my Mother, we went around the table as each person in the family read his or her Gratitude Letter to the designated relative. Laughs and tears reverberated around the table. It was a heart-felt, beautiful experience, a gift that exceeded the value of anything that could have been purchased in a store. Here’s a link to creating and sharing SoaringGratitude Letters at your family’s holiday celebration.

4. Holidays don’t have to be observed at a certain day or time even if this has always been a time-bound family tradition spanning decades (or centuries). When illness is part of the reality, sometimes people have to be flexible to accommodate the “new normal.” Perhaps some members of the family will leave the hospital in order to attend the annual meal while others will stay back with the person who is not able to make it to this year’s celebration. Other families experience tremendous relief by postponing their attendance at a family gathering. This decision to take a rain check takes the stress off of everyone and also can possibly give people something to look forward to at a future date.

5. It’s no accident that Chanukah and Christmas occur during the darkest time of the year when the days are shortest around the Winter Solstice. During this bleak time, it’s possible to remember that there are always other children, teens or families who are less fortunate than you. Opening yourself up to empathy and kindness reduces feelings of distress and isolation. The best way to transform feelings of despair into feelings of meaning and purpose is by embracing the needs of another person. According to the work of Adam Grant in his book Give and Take (Penguin Random House, 2014) when you take a simple action to lift the spirits of another person it also elevates your own well-being. That’s why we’ve built pay-if-forward activities into all of the Soaringwords’ programs we have shared with more than 500,000 children, teens and families over the past sixteen years. So whether you’re busy counting the days until the holidays officially begin… or whether you’re focusing all of your energy on positive, healthy outcomes for you or someone in your family, here are three wonderful ways to share some joy with hospitalized children, teens and families this holiday season.

SoaringSuperhero Message and Artwork:
Strength and greatness is inside of everyone. When you create a superhero message and artwork to donate to an ill child it reminds him or her that they too have superpowers such as being strong, creative, funny or kind. You can use your strengths to inspire children to “Never give up!” Click here for the online activity.

SOARING Gratitude Ladder:
Gratitude opens your heart and inspires you to give back to others. Gratitude is about joy and appreciation of simple, little things that happen daily. Sometimes it is easy to take these things for granted.  When you create a Gratitude Ladder for someone you will be giving them an incredible gift highlighting what you appreciate most about them. Click here for the activity.

SoaringLove Message:
When you love someone or something it makes you feel really happy so your heart expands with joy. Many different cultures have LOVE symbols to communicate this powerful positive feeling. Native Americans consider the Hummingbird to be a symbol of Love. In China, the Maple Leaf shows the sweetness of Love. In Norway and Iceland, the Harp symbolizes love.  Hinduism and Roman Mythology consider the Shell to be a love symbol while American Sign Language has the “I Love You” sign. Today you are invited to make a special SoaringLove message and artwork to give to a hospitalized child to brighten his day or you can surprise someone in your family by making a message just for them. Click here for the activity.

Call to Action
Give your project to someone special such as your mom, dad, brother or sister, friend, nurse, doctor or another child in the hospital.