Caroline Cranshaw: Tips for getting through Christmas for people who struggle with the holidays

Photo / Getty

Photo / Getty

It's the most wonderful time of the year ... but not everyone.

While visions of loving families and happy times fill our screens, for many, the reality of the holidays isn't so merry. Amidst financial pressure, family dysfunction and conflict, the loss of loved ones, and painful breakups, it's easy for the holiday season to not feel bright and cheerful.

Continual reminders of other people’s holiday cheer can act as a painful reminder of the love and happiness that's missing in our lives. Because of this, December can be an especially difficult time of year for those dealing with breakups, divorce, family disputes, grief and loss, loneliness and mental health issues.

Here are some useful tips to help you reduce the stress that the holidays can bring:

Acknowledge and express how you feel

If someone you care about to has recently passed away or you aren't able to be with your family, understand that it's natural to feel grief and sadness. It's healthy to cry and it's okay to show how you are feeling. You shouldn't push yourself to act cheerful just because it's the holidays. Saying out loud how you are feeling calms down your brain and helps you to shift how you are feeling. The more you try to suppress how you feel, the harder it is to stop feeling that way. 

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself

The pressure and stress of trying to do it all ― decorating for Christmas, entertaining, spending quality time with family, buying the right gifts, attending every event all the while looking your best ― is enough to send anyone spiralling out of control. 

The fear of not getting everything done and disappointing people are some of the most typical causes of the holiday blues. Many people feel that they can never get it right and that people are always disappointed in them.

Don’t go

Seriously, if someone drives you completely insane, just stay home or better yet go on a holiday somewhere that you would love to go. You do have a choice and if you don’t want to do something or see someone, don’t do it. Saying no to going to certain events or only going every other year has been one of the most freeing things I have ever done. I can’t count how many clients I’ve had who have been in an absolute panic about going to another Christmas or family event and having to sit across from the family member who molested them or abused them in some horrible way. You don’t have to spend time with people who have hurt you or that you really don’t want to be around, full stop. You have the right to say no to anything you find traumatic.

Be realistic

Hoping for the perfect holidays like a scene out of a movie is setting yourself up for disappointment. It seldom turns out how we envision, and it's frequently a disappointment. Particularly when it comes to family, it's helpful to let go of your expectation for things to go perfectly. Since the holidays tend to be a time when family conflict is highlighted, or if you have recently lost a loved one, putting pressure on everyone to play happy families and be festive could lead to more stress and feeling let down.

Focus on what you have to be thankful for ― your health, your relative who makes family get-togethers tolerable, good friends, having time off of work, can help shift your focus from what you don't have, to what you do. Gratitude is the best remedy for depression.

Stop comparing your life to others

People often struggle with the holidays because they think other people are living these perfect lives while feeling like their own life is falling apart. Someone else's life may seem perfect, but you have no idea what is going on behind closed doors. Some of the most unhappy people I have ever met, present an image to the world that their life is "perfect" when the reality is very different. Comparing your life to other people's is certain to cause disappointment.

Reach out to other people

If you are feeling lonely, seek out the support of friends, your community or find ways to help others. People can't support you if they don't know how you are feeling. Organise to get together with people who you know are in a similar situation. You would be surprised to find out how many people end up spending the holidays alone due to a change in circumstance. Talk to your neighbours and colleagues and make sure they have something to do on Christmas. 


Another good way to lift your spirits and connect with others is to volunteer your time. Animal and homeless shelters don't close down for the holidays and meals on wheels is another great charity that needs extra help during the holidays. Focusing on helping others is one of the best ways to feel better about yourself and remind you of how much you have to be grateful for. For more ideas, check out

Be sensitive to how others may be feeling

After getting divorced and spending my first Christmas eve without my children or any family, I went to a friend’s family dinner. One of the women asked me where my children were during the meal. When I told her they were spending the night with their father, she replied to me and everyone at the table. “I don’t know how you can live with yourself not waking up with your kids on Christmas morning! I would want to kill myself.”

I was so shocked and hurt by her comment that I burst into tears and left the table crying, feeling like the worst mother in the world. Think before you speak. Many people are already struggling during the holidays and your comments may be a knife in the heart that they really don’t need.

Don't spend more than you can afford

Before you go shopping, decide how much you can afford to spend. Then stick to it. So many people put themselves into debt, trying to buy other people’s approval. 

Ways to save money and stress with gifts:

  • Give homemade gifts. Candy and biscuits are always a big hit
  • Draw names out of a hat and just buy one person a gift 
  • Only buy gifts for the kids

So keep these tips in mind as you head into the holiday season. Try not to have any expectations and relax. Don’t be surprised if you are triggered by your family, and this will help you to identify and clear your own issues. As well as bringing presents, try to be present and breathe …

Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at

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