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My absolute favorite movies revolve around the Christmas holiday season. You know, the ones that paint a picturesque image of what the holidays should look like – festive decorations, friends gathering around cosy fires, finding love under the mistletoe, bonding with loved ones, and giving gifts that really mean something. There are certain bumps along the way. It can be like going home with your girlfriend and finding out she hasn’t spoken to her toxic family. But in the end, it is the best Christmas ever with a happy ending. But, it’s not how I live my holidays. And I’m sure that yours aren’t too.

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The pressure to create a magical Christmas season is increasing as the end of the year approaches. Alfiee Breland Noble, PhD, psychologist, author and founder of the mental health nonprofit AAKOMA Project, says that “everything around you, societally is pushing you to feel happy and to focus upon happiness.” This is what the holiday should look like according to the movies, ads, and perfectly curated Instagram photos of decorated wrapped presents, matching family jammies, as well as the perfect Instagram photos of the advertisements. Contrasted with our actual-life experiences, most of us end up feeling frustrated, unhappy well before we open our first gift.

We may feel an even greater desire to have a perfectly festive Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa this year. It’s been a difficult 365 days, which has included a worldwide pandemic that is hard to ignore. This Christmas holiday may seem like the last chance to make it through this year, and a way to escape the hardships that await us in 2021. But this exact build-up can actually be detrimental to our mental health, setting us up for a serious letdown post-holiday season (or a major meltdown during it).

Dr. Breland Noble says that to avoid the Christmas happiness trap, we need to be intentional about managing our expectations. She outlines a strategy to help you feel refreshed and not drained at the end of this season.

Every feeling is important

Dr. Breland-Noble suggests this simple mental flip: “Feel and acknowledge every emotion that comes your way throughout the day.” She says that a range of emotions is your natural state. “It is not possible to be focused on one emotion. We are not made to be happy all of the time. ”

Instead, pay attention to the highs and lows. Is it possible that your mother was a bit naive about the gift you gave? Name your reaction (disappointment or anger) and feel it. Did you get stuck in traffic while picking up your Christmas tree? Recognize your frustration. Although we may think suppressing negative emotions will increase our joy, it is best to acknowledge the frustration. Dr. Breland Noble explains that if you only focus on what makes you happy, then you are ignoring many of the things that can detract your happiness. They won’t disappear if you ignore them. They just keep piling up until they are gone. You can process your feelings by admitting that you are feeling low so it can pass.

Be selfish

Prioritize the things that you enjoy – and stop doing the things that you don’t. Are you tired of cooking after a long day? Order your favorite meal. You don’t like watching The Polar Express every year, but you want to make your sister happy. Instead, spend those few hours walking. Seriously, now is the time to do things because you want to do them – not because you feel like you have to. Dr. Breland Noble says, “Pick something that brings you joy.” Even if you do some things to keep the peace, make sure that those activities are paired with those that really nourish your soul. You deserve to fill your cup after the year that you have (probably) had.

Take a break

Or sleep in, take a bath, practice yoga, put together a puzzle, or do something you find restful. Do two things. Each day from December 31st to January 1st. Dr. Breland Noble says that the best thing we can do during the holiday season is to chill out. She suggests that you slow down and allow yourself to relax. To be able to pursue and achieve happiness, you must get good rest.

Dr. Breland Noble points out that you cannot think clearly if your body isn’t well-rested. If you don’t think clearly you won’t be able to practice self-awareness and actively enjoy the things you love. Eat the foods that make you happy, take enough sleep, exercise, and avoid toxic people and places.

Don a spiritual hazmat suit

This last point is important. Toxic people – meaning, anyone who makes you feel worse after you talk to them – are draining, and Dr. Breland-Noble says it’s best to avoid them as Christmas approaches. But if you can’t, given that it’s a time of year when you tend to see old connections (like your old school friend who is now an anti-vaxxer or your aunt who is incapable of not berating you for being single), protect yourself. Dr. Breland Noble says, “You cannot control other people, but that you can control yourself.”

Know your triggers and be ready for them. Be prepared to talk about topics that will steer you away from any negative comments. Aunt Karen might say, for example, “Ah, single again in this year? Are you?” You can also prepare yourself to steer the conversation away form the inappropriate topic by saying “Funny Aunt Karen. What are you currently watching on Netflix?” This could be the best thing you do for yourself in a sparring match.

To deal with toxic people, there is no one-size fits all approach. You can remind yourself that you only need to spend a brief amount of time with them – even virtual – and that there is a “protect me” plan. You don’t have to be the hero.

Be normal

Christmas and New Year are merely a random, arbitrary few weeks. Although they might be trending a bit lower or higher one year than the next, the days pass as fast as any other. Even if they are a bit disappointing, it’s OK. Dr. Breland Noble says, “Accknowledge that your efforts were made in the circumstances.” We can only adjust our expectations and continue to enjoy the good things. The bad stuff will soon be overshadowed by the good.