On Her Own

December blues: A survival guide

Hey, let’s talk about a tough topic that’s likely brewing for many of you this time of year. December is when the days get almost impossibly short here in the Northern Hemisphere, and when the reminders and pressures of the holiday season press on us the hardest. Winter weather means it’s getting colder, and the sun seems to be in hiding. For those of us who have experienced a loss (which is to say, all of us, at some point or another), the cheeriness of the season can be a stark and difficult contrast to the ebb and flow of our inner grief. All that, and the festivities and year-end can bring on a nearly overwhelming tide of family, social, and professional obligations ranging from dinners and parties to the stress of gift-buying to the more mundane but equally or more wearing demands of Christmas retail or trying to finalize business deals before January 1.

So what to do? How to manage? How to make it through until the fresh start and the quiet months in the beginning of next year? Self-care is tough at the best of times, but it can be easier when you have specific ideas about how to do it. Turning self-care into a series of tasks makes it more achievable while still being effective, even if it feels like you’re only going through the motions. Let’s get started:

As long as we’re on the topic of task lists, you should one, or two, or four, or ten. Include all of the things you need to get done this month, in every area of your life, and break each item down to as many components as possible. It’s not gift shopping; it’s buying for every person in your circle who is receiving a present from you. It’s not preparing for the New Year’s Eve party you’re throwing; it’s inviting your friends over, shopping for food, prepping the make-ahead dishes, cooking on the day of, and putting up decorations. Writing down everything you need to accomplish can be staggering. It also gives you somewhere to start, whether it’s seeing that you can’t get to one thing done until something else is finished or just picking anything at all at random. Having it all laid out might also let you find the tasks that can be combined, turning two or more into one or at least one and a half.

There might be too much to accomplish, so also figure out how important each task is and whether it can be short cut in some way. Perfection is tempting, especially at this time of year and when trying to create a memorable holiday experience or finish your work year strong. It’s also time-consuming and stress-inducing. For example, it’s one thing if you enjoy baking hundreds of picture-worthy cookies, but if you don’t, maybe it’s okay this year to use prepared dough or even just buy already-made pastries. Ditto on having the store wrap gifts for you even if it costs a few dollars because really, you hate doing it and then you can save on the effort of hiding them when you get home. And make sure you don’t lose the forest for the trees when it comes to getting the big things done at work instead of getting caught up in the tiny details – not that they’re not important, but if something has to slide, let it be the small things. Focus instead on the parts that are really meaningful to you or, for the holiday celebrations in particular, that you really like and want to do yourself, and spend the bulk of your time and energy there.

While you’re at it, add yourself to your priority list. Even those of us without the traditional family obligations and activities might find ourselves busy with taking care of everyone and everything else…sometimes because we don’t have the kinds of commitments that are normally recognized around the holidays. That makes it even more vital to carve out a few moments to think about what you want and need, to be with yourself, and to spoil yourself. Maybe that means refusing to schedule any parties or gatherings on one precious Friday night for just you or just your innermost circle. Maybe that means buying yourself a little gift or a big splurge. Maybe that means finding a way to turn down that extra, extra overtime shift even if the money is good but the time is more precious (and if you mean the time away from customers, that’s okay too). Maybe that means yes, that mani/pedi and facial.

And in that hour you’ve stolen for yourself – because you will, right? – allow yourself to mourn all the parts of this time of year that are hard for you. Miss the loved ones who are no longer around. Be sad about past events that will never happen again, because you would do anything to experience them one more time or because you sorrow for the fact you had to endure them. The busyness and relentless joy of the season makes it easy to be distracted from the less positive or enjoyable emotions that might also be sparked. That can be good, but it can also mean you’ve stoppered up all of those traumas until they burst out of you all at once. Taking the time to feel those emotions and process them might not mean you will be as happy as expected at every event, but they will help you manage them from day to day.

Regardless of how hard all the rest seems, at the very least make a point of simply turning on the lights or getting outside during the few daylight hours that remain. One of the big challenges as we get into December and January is the lack of sunlight. The shorter days even come with their own mental health syndrome: Seasonal Affective Disorder. You don’t need to be formally diagnosed with the winter blues to be hit with them at some level, though, or to benefit from some of the treatments for them. The simplest? A daylight lamp in the morning, or some regular time with nature any time of day. It only takes fifteen minutes to make a difference, though it might not feel like it right away. Bundling up will make the outdoors more enjoyable while you wait and hope for the fresh air to do its magic, and even if you never make it out, snuggling into cozy warmth is comforting in its own way.

Having extra items on your to do list might seem counterproductive, but I promise these are worth it to make this month a little easier on you.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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