While the holidays bring terms to mind like joy, celebration, and togetherness, for some they can be a time of sorrow, loss, and loneliness. Many watch the celebration and excitement they see going on all around them and feel like they are watching from the sidelines, left out. These are the “holiday blues.” There are many contributing factors to them, including the recent loss of a loved one, or not living up to their aspirations during the past year, or anxiety over what is to come in the next year.
First, let me set aside a common belief, often perpetuated by the news media, that depression and suicide increase during the holidays. Study after study shows that this is a myth. A form of depression called seasonal affective disorder may seem to increase because of the holidays, because it associated closely with the season, but it is actually triggered by the cold, short, dark winter days, not by the holidays.
Still, the holiday blues are a reality, and they are common, but the danger with them is that if they continue long into the new year, it may suggest the onset of depression. Since social isolation is one of the biggest predictors of depression, being in a state of enforced social isolation, as we are now, only makes that situation worse. This is true even in less complicated times, but this year many more people have lost loved ones, and careers, and homes, and most people have been missing out on the companionship of friends and family. This means there are likely many more people out there suffering from the holiday blues, and that may include you, someone you know, or perhaps someone you love.
The way we celebrate the holidays will be different this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is strongly recommending that in-person holiday gatherings only include people who live in and share a given house or apartment, especially if they are held indoors. This means millions of people will not have that close, personal connection that humans, as social beings, crave.
For these reasons, it is perhaps more important than in any year in recent memory, that you reach out during the 2020 holidays.
Reaching Out Can be a Special Gift
Are you lonely or feeling left out this holiday season? Do you know someone else who might be? If you answered yes to both questions, I know a time-tested, neuroscience-backed, guaranteed way for you to make two people feel wonderful at the same time, and it’s something you do every holiday season: Give. Giving feels good, doesn’t it? There is a reason for that. There truly is magic in the act of giving, and it lives in your brain, coming to you courtesy of the power of mirror neurons.
The mirror neurons in your brain give you the ability to step into another’s experience, behaviorally and emotionally. They provide the basis for empathy, perspective taking, and mentalizing. Some researchers theorize that mirror neurons are the foundation of altruism.
When you participate in the act of giving, those mirror neurons literally create a mirrored response of brain activation when you see someone expressing an emotion or engaging in a certain behavior. Thus, when your brain computes the response of the receiver it empathizes with them. As a social being it is vital that you have a mechanism for interpreting other’s actions and intentions, and these nifty little neurons are exactly that mechanism.
In addition to the rush provided by our mirror neurons, giving also has the bonus of providing you with an opportunity, or an excuse if you need one, to connect.
Changing the Face of the Holidays
We all like to show other people that we’re having a great time during the holidays, sharing pictures of mirth, joy and love with our followers on social media. But for some of us, that may not be the reality of our lives this year.
If that is the case with you, try reaching out. You can do this in small and big ways. One of the big ways is to be a little more vulnerable in our social media circles. Depending on the makeup of your social circle, this may feel scary, but also empowering. If you feel it is appropriate, you might put out a feeler to your friends and say, “Hey, I am having a bit of a hard time—could you guys reach out to me this season and show me a little love?”
Remember those little mirror neurons? When we invite people to give to us with connection – we are inviting their mirror neurons to participate in our experience of joy, gratitude, and thankfulness.
With everything that has happened this year, they may be more open to your suggestion, because they may need a little more love too. It might feel difficult and vulnerable, but it does create an opportunity for other people to similarly share their own difficulties. Your courageous request for connection may inspire others to recognize that, “Wow, I’m not alone in having a hard time; my friend is having difficulties, too, and maybe we should connect.” That connection might be one-on-one through Zoom, or on a masked, socially distanced hike, just to talk about the challenges you’re facing and build that deeper level of two-way support.
It is a hard thing to admit to people that you’re having a hard time. As Brené Brown consistently highlights, my example above with social media is a big way to do that, but it can also be done in smaller ways; just picking up the phone and reaching out to a friend is a big step. As she writes, “Social media has given us this idea that we should all have a posse of friends when in reality, if we have one or two really good friends, we are lucky.”
I have always expressed the importance of scheduling phone dates throughout the holidays. This may be even more crucial this year—not just for you, but perhaps for someone you know who is not willing to take that first scary step of creating a holiday connection. When you schedule these virtual dates, you know that wherever you are on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., you’re going to pick up the phone and either call or FaceTime/WhatsApp or Zoom that person. Just knowing it’s on the schedule, and that you and the other person are committed to it, can alleviate the pressure of going through your difficulties alone and deepen your connectedness.
Creating a Nice Virtual Touch
I don’t know about you, but one thing I and many of my friends and loved ones have missed out on greatly this year is hugs. Because of social distancing, many of us are suffering from skin hunger from that lack of touch. Being together virtually is far from the experience of truly being together with friends or family during the holidays, but I have a small hack that you can do to bring some of that touch back in and to help you regulate your system.
The self-havening touch provides a powerful opportunity to engage a technique that I’ve created called the “Hug Hack.” Here is how it works:
Simply cross your arms across your chest and rest your hands at the top of your shoulders and then move your hands down your arms and repeat that motion as though you’re giving yourself a nice, gentle hug. When joining a video call with a friend or loved one, you can begin each meeting with this action. And this is where those little mirror neurons in our brain once again create their magic, helping your system translate the observation of someone giving themselves a hug into a felt sense of being hugged by that person. Moving the hands down the arms engages feel-good chemicals such as serotonin, GABA, as well as oxytocin.
We humans are biologically designed to connect and be together, and in times of stress and fear, the desire to be together with our loved ones and friends is even stronger. This quick brain hack tricks the brain into experiencing a physiological sense of connection through remote connection. Now you can enjoy your zoom dates, house party connections, virtual happy hours, and WhatsApp/FaceTime calls with the people you love and share the experience of a physically distanced, virtual hug for the holidays.
Remember your mirror neurons and try to create your own ways to take advantage of their magic to help you stay connected with others during the holidays. See my video below for a demonstration of the Hug Hack, and a few others that provide advice and support for the holidays.
The Hug Hack: Simulating Neurological Connection in Times of Social Distancing
Being apart from our loved ones in time of stress and fear directly conflicts with the way humanity is biologically designed. This quick brain hack helps you experience a physiological sense of connection when you are connecting remotely. Now you can enjoy your zoom dates, virtual holiday connections, virtual happy hours and WhatsApp/FaceTime calls with the people you love and share the experience of a physically distanced hug! Double bonus? A delightful dose of Serotonin and GABA. Physically Distanced doesn’t mean Socially Disconnected. Let’s hug each other—virtually!
Guided Meditation for Calming Anxiety about Family During the 2020 Holidays
Boundary-setting conversations can be anxiety producing. As the holidays approach and the CDC, WHO, and health experts are continuing to reinforce the necessity for us find connection through safe distance, our amygdala may be kicking up some feelings about wanting to see loved ones or upsetting someone because we’re choosing to stay away in order to protect everyone. Did you know that Amy, our amygdala, spins stories that we will be abandoned or rejected if we set boundaries? This can make difficult conversations even more painful to have. Through welcoming the self-havening touch, CPR for the Amygdala, and the Creating Possibilities Protocol we can harness the opportunities of neuroplasticity to soothe the fear and empower us live our best lives.
Navigating Family Pressures During the 2020 Holidays with Success
Join Dr. Kate in this video for some quick tips on how to set healthy boundaries, make choices that feel comfortable for you, while actually creating connection with your family members.
Dr. Kate will discuss such tips as:
- Communicating boundaries from a place of love
- Creating connection within the distance
- New opportunities for family reminiscing
- Showing up in the small ways to show your love
- And more!
Holidays are traditionally a time of family connection and the unique experiences of 2020 add new layers of stress and pressure. With the variety of different points of view regarding how to stay safe during these holidays—feeling comfortable setting boundaries and doing these differently this year may feel hard (if not impossible). Connection, love, and support is possible with we make intentional and loving choices.
Navigating Grief and Loss During the Holiday Season
This holiday season many of us will be experiencing the holidays having lost someone we love. Grief during the holidays often feels more piercing due to the cascade of traditions and memories that come with the holidays. In this video Dr. Kate shares about the experiences of grief, love, and loss and provides healing tools for navigating the holidays with a deep honoring for both loss and life. Dr. Kate Truitt is no stranger to the nature of grief and loss. Dr. Kate’s partner of 10 years unexpectedly died one week before their wedding in 2009. Listen in as she shares fundamental tips that helped her navigate the first Holiday season without her partner and best friend of 10 years.
Leaning into Grief and Loss to Create Healing with Dr. Kate Truitt
This is a time of deep grief and loss. From the felt sense of lost freedoms to the very real loss of those we know and love passing on from this world. Grief is an experience of both mourning and honoring. It’s important to take space to be conscientious and kind to ourselves about our feelings and truths as we navigate the darkness of pain and loss. The experience of loss of 2020 in specifically unique as we are isolated from our communities and our loved ones. Learn some key takeaways in this video.