My anxiety at the family dinner table often made me “check out” during gatherings like Thanksgiving. I got lost in my head, where I felt safer. But I also missed out on all the fun. Here is how I set an intention to stay in a healthy mindset, escape the holiday blues, and learned to enjoy the season—even in uncertain circumstances.
Dreading the Family Dinner Table
The holidays can be hard, especially if you find yourself alone. It also can be challenging if you find yourself at a Thanksgiving table and feeling anxious, uncomfortable, or likely to feel triggered or end up in an argument. I remember Thanksgiving as being uncomfortable because of my social anxiety—yes, even with my own family.
In our family home, I was still shy, passive, tense, and not talkative. I love my family, but I recall being more of an observer or wallflower. I was caught up in my own head, not staying present and being an active participant who was engaged, socializing freely, and enjoying herself.
If I knew then what I know now, I think I could have taken advantage of my family’s Thanksgiving dinners and actually allowed myself to relax, feel comfortable, have more fun, and feel more festive.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
If you have thoughts of dread, avoidance, or anxiety towards this upcoming feast or the impending holiday season, you are not alone. I’ve been there, and I’ve learned how to get through my own anxiety and tension at the table. The key is to challenge unhelpful thoughts and set yourself up for growth and success, so you can have a happy holiday.
Moodiness can take us to the darkest places of bipolar depression and get the best of us, even at the most festive times. And, yes, we can develop a bad mood or negative thoughts around times meant to be cheery, fun, and enjoyed in good spirit. Being in the holiday spirit may come easier to some than others, but it’s worth the effort to maintain a positive mindset for times of holiday cheer. Because it’s better than falling into a bah-humbug funk.
From Bah-Humbug to Holly Jolly
I believe that the holiday season is the one time of the year we should all enjoy and be in good spirits. As they say, ’tis the season to be jolly. It’s probably doctor’s orders for those of us living with mental health concerns like bipolar, to help lift our spirits. This is something we can work on.
When dealing with bipolar, I’ve found that it’s easier to default or slip into the holiday blues and avoidant behaviors. To stop this emotional default, we need to call on our awareness, make an effort, and engage in personal growth. This kind of growth requires consciousness (awareness) and intentional effort because stepping out of our comfort zone can be a real challenge. But it’s worth the hard work because it can lead to happiness.
It’s a fact that happiness is best for our mental well-being. Happiness drives feel-good chemicals in the brain and helps regulate our serotonin levels.
And the truth is you can’t maintain happiness and a bad mood at the same time. (Just like you have to get yourself out of a bad mood to be in a state of happiness.) Why not use this holiday season as motivation for your growth and mental well-being? Make it your goal to join in, to perpetuate and maintain the festive cheer, as best you can. And the benefit isn’t limited to enjoying the celebrations, it also keeps you from falling into the holiday blues, or even a depressive episode. Win, win!
How to Have a Happier Holiday Season
So, how to have a happier holiday and joyous holiday season? Start with Thanksgiving and start with setting an intention.
It really is true that our mood and attitude are half the battle. Keeping in mind that the goal is to stay in a positive mindset or good mood, or to maintain a good attitude, can help us to accomplish it (and gain those healthy serotonin levels).
This requires a few different tactics:
The overall plan is to keep reminding ourselves to make this effort, all the way through holidays, until they are over.
Then we make a conscious effort and choice to return to our intention or purpose: maintaining a cheery spirit and a healthy mood, which requires mindfulness of what is positive in the moment.
Mindful of the Moment
I believe that focusing on being positive and the consciousness movement can be very beneficial to the quality of our lives and the mental illness community. There is a whole movement of personal development, growth, and self-improvement specifically for learning how to be our best self and live our best life. I believe these practices benefit people living with mental illness the most. As my own diagnoses have changed, the skills I learned from this consciousness movement have helped me tremendously—first with depression, then anxiety, and then bipolar.
Part of the purpose of mindfulness and conscious awareness is acceptance of the present. This eventually leads to acceptance of ourselves, and, later, to loving ourselves. And it’s true, when we start to love ourselves, we can love our life.
One Step at a Time, Aim for Progress—Not Perfection
Small steps can go a long way. It’s better to aim for progress or improvement than to be ruled by perfectionism. It’s also good to look for small, achievable ways to set yourself up for success. With the goal of enjoying the holiday season, it’s not about being a social butterfly or loving the holidays immediately—especially if you never have before.
It’s about you just being in a better mood, having a better time, being in the moment, and enjoying Thanksgiving and this holiday season as best you can.
Again, aim for progress, not perfection, and any improvement is a success and should increase your joy and happiness during a period you may need them most.
Embrace the Challenge
So, for this holiday season—and why not every holiday season thereafter?—make an effort and choose growth for your mental health and happiness. Choose to become an active participant in the most joyous time of year.
Step by step, season by season, we can make progress toward happiness and emotional well-being. We can overcome our anxiety. And we can enjoy the holidays.
Debbie Jacobs is an advocate, writer, and healing specialist living in Alexandria, Virginia. She lived most of her adult life with a diagnosis of depression and anxiety, and then was diagnosed with bipolar. She speaks out on how self-improvement is life improvement and believes we all can live happy lives by making positive changes to ourselves. Her influences are Louise Hay, Napoleon Hill, Les Brown, and Tony Robbins. She does positivity life coaching and is in the process of writing her first book on her healing process of accomplishing positive thinking, positive effective coping skills, and healthy self-esteem—what she calls “freedom and happiness.” She shares her work to motivate, inspire, and help others make positive changes to themselves for their freedom and happiness, too.
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