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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is written by Dr. Mike Ronsisvalle, a Licensed Psychologist and the President of LiveWell Behavioral Health.
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – It’s hard to believe that the holidays are almost here. In a flash, we will begin watching Hallmark movies, listening to festive music, and scrolling through images on the Internet about joyous time spent with family and friends.
For most of us, our expectations around the holidays are based on Norman Rockwell-type pictures in our heads about how these moments should look. These pictures include Instagram worthy experiences where we connect with those we love while we laugh about old times and engage in meaningful conversations.
Despite our picture-perfect expectations, the reality of the holidays will fall short for many of us. Instead of beautiful times spent with loved ones, the holidays can sometimes degrade into a string of disappointments in friends and family which can amount to significant anxiety and loneliness.
In fact, we have consistently found that more and more clients tend to call our LiveWell clinics for help with addictions, depression, anxiety, and family issues during the holidays than at any other time of the year.
Unsurprisingly, this disappointment about the holidays has only seemed to escalate since the pandemic. It’s almost as if collectively we are less comfortable being around others and are much more likely to withdraw into the cocoon of self-isolation when presented with the prospect of being with people, even people we love.
It’s an incredible paradox: While we all crave these beautiful interactions with our families and friends over the holidays, some of us simultaneously avoid the vulnerability we so desperately desire in order to steer clear of family conflict and the anxiety of being around others.
Having been conditioned by the pandemic to normalize isolation, many people will put in their time with loved ones but will purposely hold back on allowing themselves to authentically connect.
Others will avoid family and friends altogether and might never walk in the door for holiday celebrations. These strategies leave us increasingly isolated and lonely as a culture, a reality that has been facilitated by the work-from-home strategies implemented during the pandemic.
So what can we do to combat the epidemic of loneliness and isolation over the holidays? How do we fight back against the conditioning we received from the pandemic that in many ways normalizes our disconnection?
If you want to push yourself to connect more authentically or to reach out to your family and friends who are stuck in their loneliness and isolation, implement the following strategies for authentic connection during the holidays.
1. Intentionally Reframe the Holidays as Holy Days
Our first step towards authentic connection this holiday season is to appreciate what the word holiday truly means. At the most basic level, a holiday is essentially a holy day. Rooted in faith traditions, the concept of holiness encouraged believers to be set apart from others in a way that mirrored their behavior.
Similarly, a holy day was earmarked in a very distinct manner that granted people the opportunity to purposely change their behavior and do something different. In our culture, most of us choose various behaviors on holidays. We take the day off. We intentionally spend time with friends and family. We might even cook a special meal or buy others gifts that we might not normally purchase.
My encouragement for you this holiday season is to reframe the holidays as a series of holy days where you will purposely and intentionally choose to behave differently. That subtle shift in the way you define your strategy for the season could change so much about your holiday experience.
2. Intentionally Seek Meaning and Purpose During the Holidays
The first shift in our behavior that might facilitate authentic connection with family and friends this holiday season is to seek meaning and purpose during the holidays. Often the commercialized images we’re exposed to during the holidays drive us to focus on the more shallow aspects of the experience.
How many times have you gotten hyper-focused on whether or not the table setting looked like a Pinterest picture or whether you landed the perfect gift for a loved one? If we’re honest, it’s easy to get pulled into the pieces of the holidays that lack depth. My encouragement to everyone on the approaching holy days is that we would focus instead on finding meaning and purpose on these days that we have set apart. How do we pursue depth in our relationships?
How can we intentionally create experiences that unusually fuel meaning? If we can answer these questions, we will most certainly find that our behavior is indeed different, or dare I say, set apart.
3. Intentionally Pursue the Experience of Awe with Friends and Family
Step one is to engage meaning and purpose this holiday season. Step two is to figure out exactly how we pull this off. While there are perhaps unlimited ways we can find meaning, the research suggests that there is a cheat code that we can use to make this a little bit easier.
Psychologists have consistently found that putting yourself in environments that induce the experience of awe almost always feels different and more meaningful. The best explanation of the awe experience is the sense that, even if it’s just for a second, your mind is unable to wrap itself around something.
Now, this would be in stark contrast to how we typically engage the world, especially in a post-Internet culture. Typically, we can wrap our minds around most experiences. We interact with our world and can answer most questions about how or why.
If we can’t answer those questions, we just search google and find thousands of explanations in only a few seconds. Typically our mind can say, “I understand this.” or “That makes sense.” An awe-evoking stimulus places us in a situation where our mind says, “I can’t wrap myself around this. This doesn’t make sense. I just can’t understand it.”
When I’m trying to elicit the awe experience, I will routinely head to the beach. Consistently, when I sit on the sand and look at the vast scope of the ocean, I just cannot put my head around it, and it does indeed make me feel like I’m a part of something bigger. That is the awe experience.
How can you continue to learn, grow, and be awed this holiday season by a world that shows you something you may not fully comprehend? My encouragement to you; find family and friends who will engage in this process with you over the holidays. Go watch a sunset or take a walk on the beach together. Sit in your backyard and watch a fire in the fire pit. As you embrace the awe experience together, my hunch is that you have a deeper and more meaningful connection.
4. Intentionally Seek to Love and Serve
During the pandemic, it became essential to sharpen our focus onto our individual health and well-being. This keen focus was necessary for us as we encountered a challenging and uncharted situation. The outcome is that the emphasis on the self has persisted long past any imminent danger we might have faced.
What we are now left with is an increasingly self-centered and self-focused culture. Stepping away from the self to purposely and intentionally seek to serve and love others is yet another way to pursue meaning and purpose during the holy days around the corner. It could be something as easy as bringing food to someone in your neighborhood or sharing coffee with a friend you haven’t connected with in a while.
Our goal should be to find ways to love others over the next few weeks, and I would encourage you to find ways to serve others in a way that facilitates connections with your loved ones. Can you start a new tradition where you and your family volunteer in a soup kitchen over the holidays?
Can friends gather at your house and put together gift boxes for underprivileged children? There is no doubt that serving alongside other people increases a sense of cohesiveness and connection. This practice has been demonstrated in the research over and over again.
Incidentally, this focus on serving and loving others is almost the opposite of the commercialized self-centered experience of the holidays that is encouraged by the perfect gift or the Instagram worthy Thanksgiving table.
5. Intentionally Educate Yourself on the Difference Between Disconnection and Mental Health Problems
Any discussion about disconnection during the holidays isn’t complete without full awareness of the difference between the natural loneliness that comes from isolation and actual mental health problems. It’s one thing to feel the lingering loneliness and isolation of the pandemic, and it’s another thing to feel diagnosable depression and anxiety.
There’s a simple way to tell the difference: Do your isolation and loneliness keep you from fulfilling your major life roles? If you find that you are unable to engage in relationships at work or home and that your disconnection keeps you from being effective as a mother, father, or professional then you might be facing more than the feelings around the aftermath of the pandemic.
Also, look at the degree to which your are experiencing physiological and emotional symptoms as another litmus test of whether or not you have a more significant issue occurring in your life.
Are you having difficulty sleeping, challenges concentrating, problems with motivation, trouble finding enjoyable activities, or chronic anger or anxiety? If so, do you likely have a more clinical issue coming to the surface which requires professional attention?
As I stated earlier, the holidays tend to highlight some of these clinical issues and drive people to have the motivation to seek out help. If you answered yes to any of the above symptoms, please know that our LiveWell staff is always here to help.
Don’t go through the holidays struggling with these issues and isolation. My commitment to you is that our LiveWell clinicians will be responsive to your needs and help you figure out a plan for how to enjoy the holidays with your family and friends.
Don’t just put in time with your family and friends this holiday season. Set these days apart as holy days and choose to make them distinct. Evoke meaning and purpose. Seek the awe experience. Lead with love and intention. As we execute these strategies together, my hope is that we can all experience the beauty of connection with those we love in the holy days that are upon us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Mike Ronsisvalle is a Licensed Psychologist and the President of LiveWell Behavioral Health, a psychological services agency that provides counseling to clients of all ages and addictions treatment to adolescents and adults. You can find him on the web at LiveWellbehavioralhealth.com or call 321-259-1662.
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