Tag Archives: holiday blues

Facing a winter of discontent

By Laurie Meyers November 19, 2020

In 2005, a Welsh psychologist announced that he had created a formula combining factors such as weather, holiday debt, the amount of time elapsed since Christmas and the likelihood of already-abandoned New Year’s resolutions to determine the most depressing day of the year: the third Monday in January, aka “Blue Monday.”

To many people — particularly those in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere — this sounded logical. After all, January can seem a little grim, with its feeble sunlight and frequently unpleasant weather, the end of holiday festivities, and endless commercials for diets and exercise equipment. As we rise in the dark to trudge to work and are again greeted by darkness on the commute home, spring does seem particularly far away.

But the vaunted “discovery” was, in truth, a public relations stunt masquerading as science. Blue Monday and its phony formula were commissioned by a savvy travel agency in the United Kingdom as a faux-scientific excuse for people to stop sitting in their cubicles complaining about dreary weather and book a vacation to someplace warm and sunny.

In 2020, winter arrives toward the end of a calamitous year and with additional challenges beyond the usual seasonal funk. Americans are already reeling from a spring and summer spent isolating and physically distancing to avoid the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It was difficult or unsafe to participate in many of the sun-soaked rituals that normally help buoy people against the coming of winter.

As fall arrived, more than 200,000 Americans were dead, and the country began experiencing another nationwide surge of COVID-19 cases. Many people have lost loved ones. Isolation, lack of contact with friends and family members, and the difficulties of home schooling and working from home have taken a significant toll.

Winter promises more of the same, and what spring might hold is entirely uncertain at this time. The holiday season — which can be difficult for many people under the best of circumstances — is especially fraught this year. Public health experts have discouraged indoor gatherings that include people who do not live in the same household. This directive has left many wondering how — or if — they can celebrate with loved ones.

Unhappy holidays?

In a year when virtually nothing has been normal — “new” or otherwise — the longing for traditional celebrations may be especially intense. But it’s essential for clients to realize that the holidays, like the preceding seasons, will most likely be atypical, says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Stacy Blassingame.

“Most of us are feeling an increasing loss of connectedness to relationships and traditions we’ve come to rely on to give life meaning and purpose,” she says. But clients need not give up on the idea of sharing the holidays with loved ones; their celebrations simply need reimagining, says Blassingame, a member of the American Counseling Association whose specialties include anxiety and family issues.

She helps clients explore what aspects of the holidays have traditionally felt the most meaningful to them — such as baking and cooking, gift-giving, taking pictures or sharing stories — and then identify different ways of incorporating those things into celebrations. Blassingame and her clients have looked into ways of using the entire holiday season, rather than just a day or two, to connect with friends and family via Zoom or even through small, physically distanced gatherings.

One advantage of the increasing incorporation of technology into celebrations is that clients are more likely to include family members who aren’t usually able to travel to in-person gatherings, she points out. “In fact, this summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a Zoom bridal shower that connected me with family members I haven’t seen in years,” says Blassingame, a counselor and managing director at the St. Louis counseling practice Change Inc.

Lauren Ostrowski, an LPC in a Pottstown, Pennsylvania, group practice whose counseling specialties include depression, anxiety and relationship issues, suggests that clients get creative with technology. Instead of gathering in person as they normally would, family members could mail or drop off their gifts and then open them at the same time on Zoom, or use the platform for cooking and eating a holiday meal together, suggests Ostrowski, a member of ACA.

Not everyone views the holidays as a time when all is merry and bright, however. “The holidays are complicated for many people in the best of times,” notes John Ballew, an LPC practicing in the Atlanta area. “For many people, not being able to spend time with those we love has been painful. For others with complicated family relationships, the idea of not being able to visit during the holidays may be more distressing than the actual loss of time with family.” Some clients might tell themselves how awful it is that the pandemic is keeping them from spending the holidays with extended family, when the reality is that the prior year at Thanksgiving, they ate and drank too much and got into a big fight with their relatives, he says.

“Counselors never want to minimize their clients’ experiences,” cautions Ballew, an ACA member. “But helping clients explore what’s really important to them, what’s meaningful, may help alternatives emerge.”

Perhaps a holiday away from family conflict will provide a much-needed break, he says. And if clients end up spending the holidays mostly alone — by choice or not — can they find a way to make the season meaningful in a new way?

“Holiday time is often an overwhelming whirl of shopping, consuming and busyness,” observes Ballew, whose counseling specialties include depression, anxiety, relationship problems and couples counseling. “Yet this time of year also lends itself to reflection and thinking about what is important. Counselors have an opportunity to help clients understand the potential for something good beneath the layers of loss.”

Laura Brackett, an LPC and the director of community engagement at Change Inc. in St. Louis, notes that her clients have been bringing up the holiday season and how different it will be for months in advance. She says that before discussing how to mark the holidays, it was essential for her to understand whether the holidays had historically been a time of celebration or pain for each of her clients and if something — besides the pandemic — was contributing to making this year different from past holiday seasons.

For example, marking the holidays during a year in which a parent died and the pandemic prevented a client’s family members from gathering to mourn is drastically different from welcoming this year’s social distancing as a break from having to travel to four separate places in a 24-hour period, Brackett emphasizes.

“In general, I ask my clients what they need to grieve, to celebrate, to remember and to let go of,” she says. “We also discuss what power they have in deciding what this holiday season will be to them, including if they want to acknowledge it at all.”

Some clients this holiday season may have mixed emotions, including guilt and grief, Ostrowski says. “There are a lot more people who have an empty chair at the table this holiday,” she observes.

Ostrowski helps clients find ways of honoring their absent loved ones, such as decorating a certain way or even just sharing memories with a friend or family member. She also reminds clients that it is OK to experience a moment or time of joy amidst the grief as a kind of gift to themselves. Ostrowski asks clients to notice those feelings — how one part of them may be sad, while another part is enjoying the moment. “You can have two different emotions at once,” she confirms to clients.

A new kind of family conflict

Even among the most even-tempered families, it wouldn’t be the holidays without at least a little conflict. This year, some of the dissent is likely to be about public health experts’ advice against gathering — at least indoors — for the holidays. Family members may have divergent views of what a “safe” gathering looks like.

“Anxiety about these situations is very real,” Ballew says. “It has been called insinuation anxiety: a worry that not agreeing with someone’s choices implies criticism of how they are managing pandemic life. It is important to affirm clients who are rigorous in social distancing if that’s what they’ve decided is the best course of action.”

Ballew also probes for signs that the conflict is an indication of problematic family dynamics. “It isn’t unusual for clients to report that they feel disrespected in long-standing patterns with parents and other family members,” he explains. “Social distancing decisions may be merely the most recent manifestation of this. Coaching them through this involves several steps: identifying the problem and the desired outcome, clarifying their boundaries and choices, then using behavioral rehearsal or role-play to gain some skill in navigating these challenging interactions.

“Many people want family members to validate their choices as a way to ease their own anxiety in the face of uncertainty. I find it helpful to point out how this gives the client’s power away, leaving them at the mercy of people who may have values significantly different from their own.”

Blassingame says many of her clients feel as if the pandemic has ruined large parts of their lives. She says that allowing clients to give voice to all their disappointments often helps them realize that in some ways, they agree with those who are against a socially distanced celebration because they believe it won’t feel like the holidays without gathering in person. Recognizing this allows clients to empathize with family members and approach the conflict feeling more empathetic and centered.

Blassingame adds that some clients also find it helpful to rehearse how to respond to family members who are hurt or disappointed. They can use statements such as, “I’m really sad that it’s not safe for us to get together too. I can’t wait until we’re all together again.”

However, some clients face weightier decisions, she says. “I have also had clients who had to seriously weigh the pros and cons of spending a holiday without aging loved ones, recognizing that this may be their last holiday together,” Blassingame explains. “One client of mine had an open and difficult conversation with her aging parents weighing the pros and cons of not seeing them this year.”

In the end, the client and her parents decided that they would always regret it if they ended up missing a potential last chance to celebrate together. They have decided to spend the holiday together while taking all possible safety precautions, Blassingame says.

Julie Cavese, an LPC with a private practice in Portland, Oregon, proposes some middle ground. She suggests investing in a space heater, decorating the garage or carport and having a few family members over for a physically distanced gathering. Or, clients could suggest that family members take a holiday walk/hike or gather outside with some hot chocolate.

For clients who don’t feel comfortable getting together with extended family, even outside, “I think just being honest goes a long way,” Cavese says. Clients could tell family members that of course they’d love to see them, but they just don’t feel safe doing so. Then they can add that they’re really looking forward to seeing them next year.

Family members may not be happy with that decision, but Cavese asks clients what their priority is. Is it their personal safety and public health? “Or is it keeping the peace at all costs, even if that means Grandma gets sick?” Cavese says.

Welcoming winter

Blue Monday may be a myth, but there’s a reason that it still pops up in news articles every January. Even people who do not experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) sometimes feel more sluggish and unmotivated during the winter. Winter weather can make it difficult or undesirable to go out. Many areas of the country routinely deal with heavy snow, biting winds, sleet and freezing rain or, at minimum, uncomfortably cold rain. Even on sunny days, the light frequently feels a bit anemic.

“I’m finding that as the days get shorter, those whose moods are affected by the changing seasons have started struggling with low mood much earlier than in years past,” Blassingame says. “I can’t help but attribute this to the fact that most of us have spent a lot of time alone and in our homes already this year.”

As Ballew notes, this winter we are facing all the usual challenges without the social stimulation of parties and little pleasures such as concerts and plays. 

Blassingame has been urging all of her clients — with or without SAD — to prepare for the increased isolation of the upcoming winter. Take advantage of the time that can be spent outdoors right now, she advises.

“In many areas of the country, individuals can bundle up and go for walks or even consider fall camping or hiking to take advantage of the outdoors during even the coldest months of the year,” Blassingame says. “I [also] encourage clients to think about the things they love to do during the slower, ‘hibernating’ months of the year and begin preparing for them now by planning winter projects and activities such as home projects, crafts [and] cooking new recipes. Some are stocking up on books to read and movies to watch in anticipation of having more free time. Having something to look forward to can be a beneficial tool to cope with longer periods of isolation.”

“This year, self-care is going to be particularly important,” Ballew adds. “Don’t overindulge in self-soothing by overeating and over-drinking, though don’t completely avoid those pleasures either. Exercise is key. Look for something new to add to routines, or change things up if you get bored.”

Blassingame agrees. “During these long months, I’m urging clients to be mindful of their intake of alcohol … as many are more prone to drinking to cope with loneliness and feelings of sadness. Clients also often need help identifying friends they can ask for support to set them up for greater success as the winter drags on.”

One of Blassingame’s clients is assembling a group of friends to do regular check-ins with each other and to drop off or mail random small gifts, such as a candy bar or a package of tea or coffee, so that no one feels forgotten.

Ballew is encouraging clients to renew contacts with old friends and to stay in closer touch with existing friends. He also urges clients to explore online offerings such as meetups, 12-step groups (if appropriate) and other options.

“With single clients, I often talk about how to use online dating apps effectively during a time when dating looks very different from the way it looked last year,” Ballew says.

“It is also helpful for people to cultivate an appreciation for their relationship with themselves,” he continues. “Encouraging new hobbies or reinvesting in old ones may help them reexperience time alone as something to be valued, not just endured.”

Although clients need to find ways to make winter more enjoyable, they shouldn’t feel an obligation to be “productive,” say Blassingame and Ballew.

“For example, I have one client who, at the beginning of the pandemic, was feeling a sense of guilt over not baking bread, learning a new hobby or expanding her mind through reading a new book,” Blassingame says. “We spent time talking about the messages she received growing up about productivity and laziness.”

The client’s father had taught her that it wasn’t OK to spend time relaxing and recharging, Blassingame notes. “When we explored how she wanted to spend her time of isolation, she shared that she has a list of her top 50 favorite movies that she has always wanted to get around to rewatching,” Blassingame says.

The client realized that she didn’t even want to learn how to bake bread. “During her time at home, she watched quite a few of her favorite movies and is saving the rest for this winter when she anticipates spending more time indoors,” Blassingame says. “Sometimes, we just have to help clients give themselves permission to spend their time the way they truly want to spend it.”

It’s great that some people are spending this time learning or doing new things, Ballew says. “But for most of the people I work with, the pandemic and the changes in work and relationships it has wrought have used up much of their bandwidth,” he adds. “Telling a parent balancing working from home with sketchy child care that they should also be learning to speak another language or learn to play the flute is cruel. Yet that’s what some of my clients have been expecting of themselves.

“Counselors are in a great position to help clients recognize the demands that life is placing on them. In my experience, clients’ No. 1 need is to learn greater self-compassion.”

Everyone has their own optimal level of stimulation, Ballew explains. Some people are stretched thin by the demands of the pandemic, while others are understimulated and bored.

“Counselors need to help clients understand their own situation and how to care for themselves,” he says. “Does a client need more structure to calm some of the chaos around them? Or do they need to add a challenge that they will find meaningful?”

“One recommendation I make for most clients is to take time every day to walk with a partner or by themselves,” Ballew continues. “If they are walking by themselves, listening to audiobooks or podcasts can satisfy the urge to learn or do something meaningful. At the same time, the exercise helps them better regulate their mood.”

It’s OK to take winter as a time for self-nurturance, Cavese tells clients. She urges them to embrace its coziness and let themselves enjoy the wrapping up, hot drinks and movie nights.

Holding on to hope

During the long nights of winter to come, it might be easy to feel as if the coronavirus era is endless.

“I don’t think it’s evident to most [people] that what they’re experiencing during the pandemic is a form of grief,” Blassingame says, adding that just naming and normalizing the grief can be therapeutic. Counselors and clients should also explore what has been lost, both personally and as a society, she emphasizes.

“When some clients are struggling, I’ve found it helpful to just say, ‘This really sucks, doesn’t it?’” Ballew says. “Just acknowledging what is right in front of us can be freeing. Give clients space to talk about frustrations, fears and losses, even if they said pretty much the same thing last week. Many clients are struggling to support others, and the counseling session may be their only opportunity to acknowledge the depth of their loss. The goal is to help clients move to a place of acceptance if they can.”

“It’s crucial for helpers to acknowledge how these times have been tough for them as well,” Blassingame urges. “As paradoxical as it may seem, we can often be more helpful when we resist the urge to fix or remove the grief and pain that clients are experiencing. Be a fellow struggling human being who is walking beside them in the same struggles.”

Brackett also believes that counselors may want to consider self-disclosure. “As counselors, we often appear to our clients like we have it all figured out, even if we don’t intend to present that way,” she says. “Would normalizing an experience with your own life help? For example, a client recently discussed worry about the dropping temperature and how it will limit their ability to see people. While we considered ways to keep connection when outdoor activities aren’t as easy, the part of the conversation that steadied them the most was my own disclosure about that concern: ‘I don’t know how to maintain connection during a global pandemic during holiday season in the Midwest in the winter either, and it’s intimidating! Maybe we can figure it out together.’

“It’s that last word — together — that reminds them that even if they don’t know what to do, someone is with them.”


Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:


Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Positive actions to prevent the holiday blues

By Esther De La Rosa Scott December 11, 2019

‘Tis the season to be jolly! The season for candlelight, friends, gatherings and warmly lit fireplaces. Although the holiday season is a time full of parties and family gatherings, for many people it is also a time of self-evaluation, loneliness, reflection on past “failures,” and anxiety about an uncertain future. It is the season for the holiday blues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines the holiday blues as temporary feelings of anxiety or depression during the holidays that can be associated with extra stress.

There is much connected to our holiday festivities that can cause us stress. What to wear? What food to bring? What gifts to get? For some people though, the more pressing question is, “How will I get through the holiday stress and the memories that accompany the season?”

This is also the season, with the days getting shorter and shorter, when we spend a significant amount of time inside and in the dark. Waking up in the dark, going to work in the dark, and leaving work in the dark can be tough for many of us, putting us at risk for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the wintertime.


What causes the holiday blues?

Researchers have yet to uncover the specific cause for SAD, which is also referred to as the holiday blues. However, they do acknowledge that several factors are at play.

The reduction in sunlight in winter can throw our biological clocks out of whack and reduce our levels of serotonin (a brain chemical that regulates our mood) and melatonin (a chemical that regulates sleep and mood).

The holiday or winter blues can be triggered by other factors that include unrealistic expectations, overcommercialization, or the inability to be with our families and loved ones. The increased demands of shopping, parties, family reunions, and houseguests also can contribute to these feelings of tension. Even people who do not become depressed can develop other stress reactions such as headaches, excessive drinking, overeating, and difficulty sleeping during the holidays.


When to seek help

Recent studies have shown that environmental factors — namely fewer hours of sunlight — can contribute to feelings of depression around the holidays. SAD is considered a category of depression that emerges in particular seasons of the year. Most people notice SAD symptoms starting in the fall and increasing throughout the winter months. If you are experiencing SAD symptoms (e.g., changes in sleep and appetite, a loss of pleasure in activities you once loved, depressed mood, feelings of hopelessness, a lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, reduced sexual interest, unhappiness, thoughts of death or suicide) make an appointment with a mental health provider.

We all have days when we feel unmotivated, but if your symptoms are causing disruptions in your life, it is time to reach out for assistance. A mental health professional can help you figure out the things in your life that are stressing you out and help you make a plan to manage or minimize their impact on your emotional health. In addition to seeking help from a mental health professional and avoiding specific unhealthy habits, implementing the positive actions described in this article can help improve your symptoms.

During the holidays, there are many obligations — from attending parties to wrapping gifts to baking treats — that can cause us stress. We can easily get caught up in fulfilling these obligations rather than spending time doing the things that would actually bring us joy. Rather than letting the season take a toll on us, we can take positive actions to emotionally prepare ourselves for winter and the holiday blues. After all, the holidays are supposed to be a time for us to recharge and restore our energy for the year ahead.


Positive actions

Here is a partial list of positive actions that can help prevent the holiday blues.

1) Get organized. The brain functions better when structure is provided. Take time to go through your closet and put away any clothes you won’t be using during the winter months. Move the key pieces you will be reaching for during the cold months to the front of your closet. This will give you a feeling that you are in control.

2) Get festive. Decorate for the holidays to make your space feel a little less monotonous. Put on some appropriate tunes while you are decorating. This will help you feel included and as so many others are celebrating in their own unique ways. Remember that holiday cheer does not automatically banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely. There is room for these feelings to be present, but a little holiday spirit can help you better manage your emotions.

3) Let go of the past. Don’t be disappointed if your holidays are not like they used to be. Life brings changes. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. You set yourself up for sadness if everything has to be just like the “good old days.” Instead, prepare yourself by stocking up on delicious smelling candles, or light a fire and sit down with pen and paper to write a gratitude journal, or send handwritten notes to friends and family. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a way you have not tried before. Try volunteering some time to help others. Dopamine (“happy juice”) is released in the brain when we perform acts of kindness.

4) Go window shopping. Go shopping without buying anything. Take advantage of holiday activities that are free of charge, such as driving around to look at Christmas decorations in your neighborhood or participating in your community tree lighting or church service tradition.

5) Spend time with people who are supportive and care about you. Do you ever find yourself staying late at work because you don’t have a reason not to? Make reasons to leave. Make plans with friends ahead of time so you can’t back out and just stick around the office.


Things to avoid

1) Do not stay inside and be alone for too long. Try going outside as often as possible; getting plenty of sunlight will lift your mood. Visit a church or gather with others. The holidays are intended to be a time to get together with people we love to express gratitude for the things in our lives that we treasure. It is a time to spread messages and acts of love to one another. Keeping sight of the true reason for the season and spirit of the holidays will help to improve your mood.

2) Do not stop your exercise routine. Exercise works like an antidepressant. It increases levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, boosting your mood. But for many people, the holiday season brings drastic changes in routine. They lose their sense of normalcy and stop the routines they have established that help them to feel healthy and secure. It is of great importance to maintain your usual routines — particularly your exercise routine — even throughout the holidays. Sometimes, something as simple as sticking to a routine can help you maintain a sense of control. Don’t forget to keep a reasonable sleep schedule as well.

3) Do not drink excessively or use drugs. For those who have lost someone close to them or experienced a romantic breakup, the holidays can trigger intense feelings of loss and pain. Some people fall into the trap of self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to alleviate emotional pain and other symptoms of depression. In reality, treating these problems with alcohol or other substances only makes the problem worse.

Alcohol and depression have a dangerous relationship. Although alcohol can create a sense of pleasurable feelings in the short term, it is ultimately a depressant on the central nervous system and will leave you feeling worse. In addition, alcohol lowers serotonin levels in the brain, causing a person who feels depressed to slip into an even deeper depression. Alcohol also interferes with metabolic processes and sleeping patterns, which can further worsen the person’s condition.

Instead, it is helpful to prepare for these triggers with a therapist or close friend. Then you will know what to expect and how to handle the strong emotions that you may experience. Another way to mourn the loss of a loved one around the holidays is to honor their memory through a holiday tradition that they enjoyed. Perhaps this involves baking their favorite dessert, putting up their favorite decorations, or sharing stories and special memories of the person.

Make an agreement with yourself about how many drinks you plan to have in advance, and stick to it. Seek immediate help if you are using alcohol or drugs to manage your pain and are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).


Next step

There is nothing new under the sun, and the same is true for the ideas discussed in this article. I have not suggested any strategies that are not already known or that have not been given by somebody else. But what I have done is provide an organized list of positive actions that you can take to prevent the holiday blues.

If you anticipate that the holidays may be a challenging time for you and you could use a little extra support implementing any of the positive actions from this article, make an appointment with a mental health provider. Counseling in one of the most powerful weapons we have to protect against emotional pain, depression, the holiday blues, and even the everyday ups and downs of life. Having someone who is trained and there specifically to talk about your feelings is invaluable. Remember, asking for help is a sign of strength and movement toward a better version of yourself.

You can’t force yourself to have fun, but you can push yourself to take the positive actions necessary to protect yourself against the emotional impact of the holiday blues. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it is painting, singing, playing the piano, working on crafts, or simply hanging out with friends. And consider how you can start implementing these positive actions today for a more meaningful, well-balanced, healthier life this season and every season.



Esther De La Rosa Scott is a licensed professional counselor. She is a solution-focused specialist and couples therapist. Her specialties include relationship counseling, grief, depression, and teaching coping skills. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.com.


Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The most wonderful time of the year?

By Bethany Bray October 23, 2017

Counselors can help clients prepare for the pressures that come during the holiday season, from a barrage of parties and social events to the temptation to compare themselves with the happy, near-perfect holiday scenes in movies, advertisements or friends’ social media posts.

For clients with seasonal depression, it can all be overwhelming — just at a time when people are expected to be happy and joyful, says John Ballew, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a private practice in Atlanta. Financial stresses, relationship concerns, grief over the loss of a loved one and other life challenges can feel more intense.

“This can be exactly the time that’s going to press on an old wound,” says Ballew, a member of the American Counseling Association.

Cindy Gullo, an ACA member and licensed clinical professional counselor in O’Fallon, Illinois, says she also notices an uptick in depression symptoms in her teen clients during the unstructured weeks of school break for the holidays, as well as anxiety over the return to school in the new year. She coaches clients to create and maintain structure over holiday breaks, including getting up at the same time in the morning and keeping up with the tasks they normally do while in school, such as completing reading assignments or practicing a musical instrument.

For Ballew’s adult clients, setting boundaries — from limiting their party RSVPs and holiday overeating to avoiding toxicity on social media — is often key to navigating the holidays. He also talks about the difference between self-care and self-indulgence with clients when preparing for the season.

“The adage that ‘No is a complete sentence’ is very applicable here,” Ballew says. “Especially if they have social anxiety, three hours at a party can feel totally overwhelming. Plan to go for 20 minutes, say hello to at least three people, then leave and admit you’ve done something difficult.”

On the flipside, clients who don’t receive any holiday invitations can sink into isolation or self-pity. Ballew says he works with clients to challenge themselves. Are they sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring? If so, they can be the one to call friends and initiate get-togethers. They can volunteer. They can choose to attend concerts and other local events on their own.

The holidays — from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day — can also be a struggle for clients who are single and unhappy about it. Again, Ballew says he challenges these thought patterns with clients. “For people who are alone, it’s learning to love being alone and make peace with it,” he says. “Reassess old patterns and beliefs and let go of things that aren’t working. What activities can you do alone? What beliefs do you have that keep you from enjoying things alone?”

Conversations with clients about setting boundaries can also be helpful in preparing for the family pressures and get-togethers that crop up during the holidays. For clients with particularly toxic or unhealthy family situations, this may mean limiting their involvement or staying away altogether, Ballew says. It may even be helpful to create their own new traditions during the holidays.

Sometimes, Ballew coaches clients to think of family visits as a trip to the zoo: What behavior might you see? What can you expect? What responses can you have ready for when family members make inappropriate or triggering comments?

When appropriate, he will create a “family bingo” board with clients, listing predictable patterns and negative behaviors that they can track in their minds. Although they wouldn’t bring the board to family gatherings, its creation is a way to prep for managing potentially challenging situations, Ballew explains.

“Approaching things with a sense that it doesn’t need to be that serious can be helpful,” he says. “With other folks, if the family is seriously dysfunctional, they just need to set boundaries. For example, if dad gets drunk, they don’t need to wait around to be berated. Have a [plan and] a place to go so you aren’t as vulnerable as when you were younger.”

Marcy Adams Sznewajs, an ACA member and LPC with a private practice in Beverly Hills, Michigan, specializes in working with teenagers and emerging adults. Like Ballew, she works with clients to prepare for family interactions over the holidays, with focus placed on empathy and listening skills.

“We do a lot of role-play in anticipation of family events,” she says. “What would happen if your uncle goes down this path and you respond in this way? How might that end? How would you like it to end? What are some different ways you can approach the situation? Teens don’t always have the ability to step back and say, ‘Just because someone doesn’t understand me doesn’t mean that I need to spout off my opinion at all times or respond.’”

“We also talk about understanding other people’s perspectives and life experiences,” she continues. “If they can look at a [family member’s] actions and behaviors from a place of empathy, sometimes it’s easier to sit through a conversation. Or, sometimes, it’s so horrible that all they can do is take a deep breath and get through it. Then we talk about management, mindfulness and ‘this too shall pass.’

“I tell them, ‘I can’t always help fix this, but I can help you cope, and you are strong enough to deal with this.’”




READ MORE about supporting clients through seasonal depression in the article, “A light in the darkness” in Counseling Today‘s November magazine: https://wp.me/p2BxKN-4V1


From the Counseling Today archives: “Unhappy holidays: Helping clients through the ‘holiday blues’




Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.





Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.


The Counseling Connoisseur: Enjoying the holidays by letting go of expectations

By Cheryl Fisher December 21, 2016

“Peace begins when expectation ends.” — Sri Chinmoy


My family recently celebrated several milestones of honor. Turning 16 and now boasting a driver’s license, my nephew has intensified his campaign to own that ever-elusive Mustang. Meanwhile, his parents celebrated their 50th birthdays. The grandest of celebrations, however, honored my parents, who both turned 80 this year.

This special event warranted all the hoopla we could muster. We reserved my parents’ favorite restaurant, which has played host to their Saturday date nights for more than 30 years. We ordered a three-tiered cake that was glazed in teal and decorated in white-and-black lattice and beads. Cherries jubilee, my father’s favorite dessert, was assembled to accompany the cake.

Furthermore, decorations, flowers and unique trinkets were crafted and arranged to create a special tribute to family members. We compiled a soundtrack, with a conglomerate of music specially selected to appeal to each of the honorees. We hired a photographer to document this precious event. The drinks were poured. The food was delectable. Everything was perfect.

Except … the music wouldn’t play because there was no access to Wi-Fi … and the cake leaned like the Tower of Pisa as it settled on the stand … and the toast I had spent hours preparing didn’t come out quite as eloquently as rehearsed. Even the cherries jubilee failed to ignite, requiring the dousing — OK, the dumping — of more brandy than should ever be used in any dessert.

It was a circus of mishaps. Nothing turned out as planned. But once we were able to lean into the moment and dispel our illusions of control and perfection, we engaged in merry-making and memory-making that will last a lifetime.


Five tips for enjoying the holidays

‘Tis the season for gatherings filled with song, culinary bliss, gifts and expectations. Invariably, it is the stress generated from these expectations that diminishes the magic that can be found among family, friends and festivities. Rather than succumb to the tyranny of expectations, here are five liberating suggestions for the holidays:

1) Focus on the moment. Often we impose expectations around time. We either have the perception of too much or, more commonly, too little time. However, time is, according to Einstein, an illusion.

Therefore, spending precious time in the past or the future can be futile. Focus on the moment at hand. What is it that you want to remember about this moment? Is it the perfectly crafted table setting and trimmed tree … or is it the communion of family? Finally, find ways to simplify your schedule. Prioritize activities and give attention only to those that are meaningful to you.

2) Set boundaries, and don’t take it personally. Setting boundaries is probably the most powerful tool you have for protecting against the stress that is sometime generated by family and friends. Be clear and assertive. If you are unable to host an event, then (practice with me) just say, “NO.”

No is a complete sentence and really does not require an explanation. If you feel compelled to provide an explanation, then do so … but do not personalize any response you may receive. Everyone is entitled to her or his reaction; however, we do not need to take that reaction on. If Aunt Susan always criticizes your sweet potato casserole (regardless of how much you modify it to her specifications), then let it go. This is not about your casserole. Aunt Susan simply benefits from the illusion of control she exerts when she criticizes. It is her baggage — you don’t need to carry it.

3) Think in possibilities rather than expectations. Unlike expectations, which often hold assumptions from past experience and promote rigid thinking, possibilities are based in the mystery of the moment. All things are possible in any given moment. It is possible Uncle Tommy won’t have too much eggnog and need a ride home. It is possible that the cousins won’t engage in a passionate dispute over political views this year. Possibilities allow room for change.

4) Embrace the mishaps. If we must carry expectations at all, then expect that mishaps will occur. Stuff happens. Presents don’t arrive on time. Dinners don’t look like their airbrushed pictures in the magazines. People … well, people can be temperamental. Yet it is often the mishaps that generate the charming memories that we hold so dear.

5) Remember that it is temporary. In the midst of the hustle and bustle and family dynamics, remember that it is all temporary. All of it. The holiday. The time together. The busyness that we impose on ourselves and each other. It is simply a flash, and then it is over. All that remains are the memories we have chosen to create. Therefore, craft wisely.



The pictures from my parents’ celebration arrived recently — 335 snapshots that captured moments from this monumental family event. Each print portrayed a perfect interaction of smiles and hugs. Beautifully set tables, the cake perfectly straight and tall, the cherries jubilee aflame.

Yet behind each perfect pose and print resided another story … a narrative flawed by imperfections. A narrative that fades into our family history of “mostly happily ever after.”

From my family to yours … Peace and Happy Holidays!




Cheryl Fisher


Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the pastoral counseling program at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research is titled “Sex, Spirituality and Stage III Breast Cancer.” She is also writing a book, Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices, that speaks to nature-informed wisdom. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.








Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.



Unhappy holidays: Helping clients through the ‘holiday blues’

By Bethany Bray December 17, 2014

The holidays are supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” right? After all, the greeting cards and carols of the season are filled with words like “cheer,” “joy,” “merry” and “happy.”

For many people though, the holidays invite the opposite: dread, deep sadness or a resurgence of anxiety, grief or other mental health issues. Sometimes dubbed the “holiday blues,” the pressure of Gingerbread man cookie with frownfamily gatherings, gift giving, religious traditions and social commitments can be overwhelming.

Therapeutic issues that a client and counselor have been working on throughout the year are often magnified throughout the holidays, says Lauren Ostrowski, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who works at a community counseling agency in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

“I have some clients who are upset at the holidays, from Halloween through Valentine’s Day,” says Ostrowski, an American Counseling Association member. “Even New Year’s — it’s a time of new beginnings, and people notice what they don’t have, who’s not at the table and what they haven’t accomplished, and it perpetuates the whole cycle [of struggle].”

For counselors, the key to helping clients through this difficult time of year is to plan ahead and talk about the pressures of the season before they climax, agree Ostrowski and Christian Billington, a licensed marriage and family therapist candidate in Denver. Counselors can offer clients an array of coping mechanisms, from self-care strategies to the realization that they can’t please everyone.

Billington, an ACA member who specializes in grief, loss, couples and families, suggests that counselors work through anticipated stressors ahead of time, “like a rehearsal.”

“Preparation can be important if stressful family events are inevitable,” he says.

For clients who face tense family situations, Billington suggests counselors discuss and identify triggers with the client and develop an “exit strategy” for get-togethers ahead of time. Most importantly, he says, talk with the client to ensure they have a trusted person, such as a spouse, they can talk to and “debrief” with at short notice during the holidays.

Ostrowski says she will work with a client to create a “road map” plan for holiday events and traditions. This way, the client can see all the things they look forward to and use the happiness from those events to counterbalance those that are less enjoyable, she says.

She encourages clients to make sure the things they want to do – perhaps a tradition from their childhood or a favorite side dish for the holiday meal – are included on their road map. At the same time, she tells them they should not feel obligated to continue traditions they don’t like.

“I talk a lot about how it’s impossible to make everyone happy” at the holidays, says Ostrowski.

Janis Manalang, an LPC and owner of counseling centers in Sterling and Alexandria, Virginia, stresses that clients must learn to be honest with themselves and recognize their boundaries, particularly at this time of year.

Clients who like to please others should “learn to draw a line in the sand with families or friends so they do not feel obligated to do something with them or give gifts,” says Manalang, an ACA member who is working on her doctoral dissertation on counseling education and supervision at Argosy University. “It’s always best to be honest with what you can participate [in] … understand that there will be people that we can not control and accept that we can only control ourselves.”


Key takeaways for counselors about this multifaceted issue:


Missed appointments

Ostrowski says her rate of client no-shows and appointment reschedules spikes during the holidays. For clients prone to struggling this time of year, missing an appointment tends to make issues even worse.

When appropriate, Ostrowski says she will point out to clients that they said they needed help getting through the holidays but didn’t show up for their appointment. In other cases, she uses her office’s holiday closure as a way to bring up discussions about scheduling and ensuring that clients get as many sessions as they need.

Counselors should also make sure that clients have an emergency number they can call while the counseling office or clinic is closed for the holidays.


Travel and homecoming

Christine Forte, an ACA member and licensed mental health counselor in private practice in Shanghai, China, works to prepare her clients for the emotional impact of traveling home, often after being away for long stretches of time. In such situations, it’s important to remind clients that it is unlikely they will have enough time to see all the people and do all the things they’d like while home.

“What do they really want and what do they find it most important to spend their time on?” Forte asks these clients. “Be realistic in making plans, and allow time for rest and relaxation as well. One thing that I encourage is to be as clear as possible ahead of time to their families about what they will and won’t be able to do. Family and friends can expect that expats will simply slot back into life at home when they return at the holidays, but it simply isn’t the case.”


Family dynamics

If the idea of a family get-together with “feuding relatives” is too stressful, Billington suggests that clients keep them off the invitation list or consider hosting separate get-togethers so the client can avoid becoming the middleman or peacemaker.

Forte encourages clients to take a step back and simply observe when family friction arises. “Awareness can be a powerful tool toward change,” says Forte. “I encourage clients to step back and observe as much as possible. Observe the patterns, observe their family member’s behavior, observe how they tend to respond [to one another]. … [Clients] can’t control what their family members are doing, but they can control their own behavior and practice reacting or interacting in new ways.”


Grief or anniversary of trauma

The holidays can be especially hard for clients who have experienced a recent loss and those for whom the season marks the anniversary of a death, crisis or other trauma. Counselors should be intentional about checking in with clients who fall into this category, says Billington.

“Anniversaries and holidays can be harder when a loss has been experienced because someone or something is missing and things are not the same,” he says. “This can be particularly triggering. In the context of grief and loss, I encourage clients to be prepared for these triggers and discuss the surrounding anxiety, concerns and worries as a proactive approach to anticipating triggers, almost as a rehearsal.”

Ostrowski suggests that clients mourning the loss of a loved one involve that person’s memory in holiday celebrations, such as making and displaying an ornament that reminds the client of the deceased.


Avoidance doesn’t work

Even clients who make a deliberate choice not to celebrate the holidays will still hear holiday music and see decorations everywhere they go. Reminders of the holidays are unavoidable, says Ostrowski.

“I would much rather [that clients] say, ‘We’re not talking about Christmas until after Christmas,’ and we can work on other issues and have an alliance through the holidays, rather than [these individuals] just isolating themselves,” she says.

For those clients who go into “survival mode” between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Ostrowski has them focus on the fact that the Christmas tree won’t be up for the entire year, the season will pass and there are new times ahead.


Client self-care

Self-care can be one of the most important coping mechanisms for clients during the holidays. This can range from small interventions such as breathing and relaxation techniques to more intensive methods, such as taking a trip away.

Ostrowski worked with one client to help her plan a special day of her own in the middle of the holidays, complete with activities she enjoyed and a favorite meal. Having a special day to look forward to helped offset the stress she felt around the rest of the season, Ostrowski says.

Another intervention Ostrowski suggests for clients is a gratitude journal – an idea she got from Liana Lowenstein, a well-known Canadian social worker. The client records one positive thing or event that happens each day. Ostrowski has clients start the journal before the holidays, when the weather is warmer and the days are longer. During the holidays, clients can then flip back to the start of the journal to remind themselves of a less stressful time.

For clients who feel an increase in depression or anxiety as the weather turns colder and the days become shorter, Manalang recommends the use of a light therapy lamp.


Loneliness and homesickness

Self-care in the form of planned activities can also help clients who are lonely or far from loved ones through the holidays.

Volunteering and participating in community events can be a powerful and rewarding intervention for clients who are lonely, says Billington. He also suggests that clients make a “plan of action.”

“For example, making a list of things the client likes to do, and if the loneliness birds come home to nest, the client can refer to the list and undertake some of these activities,” says Billington. “Taking a trip away can also palliate some of the symptoms of loneliness.”

With clients who cannot travel to see family or loved ones, Forte stresses the importance of preplanning local get-togethers and outings.

“Especially if it’s the first time they’ve spent the holidays away, it can be a time of really strong homesickness,” she says. “I always encourage people to make plans in advance with people from their community who will be around or on their own at Christmas. Having a fun day with friends or a meaningful day doing some type of community service can help to mitigate the sadness that might otherwise be there. I’ve found this helps a lot personally in years that I had to spend Christmas away from my family, and I’ve also found that having the plans in advance helps to dissolve some of the negative anticipation. It won’t be the same as being home with family, but it could be more fun than they think.”


Gift giving

The pressure of holiday gift giving can be a major stressor for some clients, especially if they have limited income.

The task of giving gifts and, in turn, pleasing the recipients can be tied to self-worth, notes Ostrowski.

Billington says he reminds clients that “the objective of any gift is thoughtfulness. … Helping clients understand the thought behind gift giving can help alleviate some of the stress and pressures of this ritual. In fact, making time in a session for a client to practice some art/craft therapy can be a good way to have fun, learn more about the gift recipient and the client’s world, and create a thoughtful gift.”


Talk about the holidays year-round

Ostrowski says she asks new clients if the holidays present a challenging time for them at intake, no matter what time of the year it is. “If you find out the week before Christmas, it’s kind of too late,” she says.

Asking clients about their mindset related to the holidays is comparable to asking them about their sleeping habits as they start counseling, Ostrowski says.

“You find out they’re not sleeping [that way], and they would never volunteer [that information],” she says. “This is the same thing. Clients don’t often tell me without my asking whether the holidays are a difficult time or not.”


On the other hand …

The holidays can also be a client’s favorite time of year. In such cases, a counselor might help the client remember this happy season at other times of the year when he or she is struggling.

“Remember that [the holidays] won’t always be negative [for clients],” Ostrowski says. “The key is to discuss it.”




Related reading


Ostrowski recommends this page of resources from Psych Central (which she also distributes to clients who struggle during the holidays): psychcentral.com/holidays


From See the Triumph, a blog, social media and research project started by two counselors and ACA members about issues of domestic violence: seethetriumph.org/blog/loneliness-and-the-holidays


Tips for managing the holiday blues from the National Alliance on Mental Illness: bit.ly/1vA4RUw


ACA Counseling Corner article: Holiday depression: Fixable and something not to be ignoredbit.ly/1AIscrC


Tips from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org/coping-with-suicide-loss/where-do-i-begin/handling-special-occasions




Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


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