Tag Archives: holiday blues

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


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