This is a time of year that brings so much joy to so many.
There’s caroling and brightly colored lights, random acts of kindness, and cookies made just because. Then there are the family gatherings punctuated by laughter and togetherness.
It’s that last part that gets some people, though. Because the holidays don’t always mean joy within every family.
For some, a recent loss can be highlighted and made to feel so much more painful as a result of the holidays. And for others dealing with estrangement from their own families, the holidays can serve as a reminder of what they don’t have.
It’s an internal ache that’s sometimes made to feel more intense by the contrast to others’ joy. Which is why for some, the holidays become a time of survival rather than celebration.
“The holidays can be a sad reminder of the family and friends who are no longer with us, or the friends and family we never had and never will have,” said Beatrice Tauber Prior, PsyD, clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and owner of Harborside Wellbeing in Cornelius, North Carolina.
“In fact, my practice becomes even busier during the holidays with people who are coping with loss,” she added.
It’s common for the holidays to be a harder time of year for those who are already working through hardships in their lives, Prior explained.
Janet Zinn, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in grief, loss, and relationships, told Healthline this emotional struggle happens in part because of the shared rituals that commonly take place during the holidays.
These rituals can highlight a loss for those who no longer have their loved ones around to celebrate with.
“The myth of the holidays is that it is a happy, celebratory time,” she explained. “So not feeling happy, going through grief, can feel particularly lonely.”
While losing a loved one is painful, it’s something practically everyone experiences at some point. Which means others may be more quick to at least understand your struggle if a recent loss is behind your inability to get into the holiday spirit this year.
But family estrangement can sometimes be harder to explain to people who haven’t been through it.
Those who don’t understand what you’re going through may quip that blood is thicker than water, or offer platitudes about life being too short and fragile to waste valuable time that could be spent with those you love.
There may or may not be truth to those words. Only you know the reasons for your family’s estrangement. But while you may feel alone in that experience, it’s actually more common than you might realize.
A recent analysis of 800 study participants, jointly embarked upon by the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge and Stand Alone, found that 40 percent of people have experienced estrangement from family to some extent.
“Family estrangement needs to be distinguished between family members who have no contact at all (physical estrangement) and those whose contact is infrequent and conflictual when they are in contact (emotional estrangement),” Prior explained.
She added that physical estrangement tends to be less common, while emotional estrangement is something many have experienced.
“As a therapist, I see many estranged family members,” Zinn explained. She said there are a lot of reasons families might become estranged. “Currently, political differences have split family members and the arguments are heated on all ends.”
She further explained, “There are so many reasons, like sexual or gender identities that are not embraced by family members, religious differences, substance abuse that tears families apart, money or financial issues, siding with a parent during separations or divorce.”
Whatever the reasons may be, the results are the same: A family that can’t amicably be together during the holidays.
This leaves those on the outside feeling alone and robbed of the joyful family celebrations that television, movies, and society tell them they should be having.
It’s those outside expectations that can sometimes make the holidays even more difficult to get through.
“Looking at social media during the holidays can make family estrangement even harder to deal with,” Prior explained. “Scrolling on social media reinforces the idea that others are having more fun and they are enjoying what you do not have.”
She went on to point to research that’s found a link between time spent on social media and an increase in feelings of loneliness and depression.
“Rather than spending more time on the internet, make sure to spend time face to face with those you care about,” she advises. “The face-to-face interaction will increase the feel-good hormones called endorphins.”
This is also a good way to remind yourself of the relationships you do have, the good things you’re able to embrace — even if the holidays are otherwise serving as a reminder of what’s missing.
Taking a break from social media may not be enough to ease difficult emotions intensified by the holidays. That’s why Zinn suggests, “Family members who have experienced loss from death or estrangement can create a new holiday story.”
She explained that this can take a variety of forms, whether you embrace new traditions with friends, volunteer at a local shelter, or make the most of your alone time with self-care.
Additionally, if you’re struggling with a recent loss, she suggests doing something to honor the loved one you’re missing. Light a candle, share stories about that person, or find another special way to make it feel as if they’re still a part of your holiday.
Most importantly, Zinn explained, “Try not to let others tell you how to spend your holiday.”
Instead, find a way to make it yours again.
Prior suggests taking action, such as inviting a friend to a football game or attending a free holiday event.
“Neuroscientists have shown that proactivity works against sadness and even depression because it helps the brain make connections between all the moving parts of the day to come up with a streamlined plan,” she said.
She explained this same proactivity can reduce anxiety by giving you a sense of control.
“You will feel accomplished rather than hyper-reactive,” she said.
Both experts were clear that there are resources available for anyone hurting during the holidays.
“Do not struggle alone,” Prior said. “There are plenty of therapists available and we usually keep a spot open during the holidays, or can refer you to someone who is available.”
If therapy isn’t an expense you can take on right now, Zinn suggests checking with religious or other community organizations for free resources they may have available.
“Find loss and bereavement groups, or other groups online. Reach out to those who will listen without judgment. Give yourself latitude. This is a stressful time, and each person experiences and lives through loss in their own way,” she said.