Five tips for surviving the holidays


Mars Nevada

A sketch of a woman looking into a mirror, all alone
Mars Nevada writes spending the holidays can be hard on a person’s mental health. Graphic by Mars Nevada/the Gateway

The holidays are right around the corner and with them come a deluge of articles about where to take the perfect family vacation, the best recipes for cooking for extended family and nostalgic reminiscences of growing up and enjoying – you guessed it – holidays with one’s family.

For some of us, who have separated from our biological families (for any number of reasons like health, safety, emotional well-being), the holidays can be a lonely and miserable time. Researcher Richard P. Conti, in 2015 for the Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science, wrote that “estrangement is a relatively neglected topic” in research yet, “it often becomes an issue in clinical practice.” In his study, 43.5% of his 354 participants who were undergraduate and graduate students experienced estrangement from family members. It’s an experience that’s difficult to talk about, and the holiday season doesn’t make it any easier.

Even if you don’t celebrate any holidays in their religious context, (I am, myself, a serious agnostic), there’s a general atmosphere that’s hard to miss every holiday season. And it’s all good and fun. You can’t tell me there isn’t some lizard part of your brain that flickers like a hot switchboard every time Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” blares to life in a flurry of sleigh bells. So, without the pretext of holiday parties and dinners with family, how does one join in on the cheer and merriment?

1. If you can afford it, travel.
Traveling for the holidays alone might sound like a nightmare, but with a little planning, it can be a time for adventure, exploration and relaxation. I personally love taking the (relatively) short bus ride to Kansas City, Missouri, for a few days of shopping in the Country Club Plaza, partying in Westport, scarfing down diner burgers and milkshakes to the tune of retro holiday tunes at Winstead’s and cheering to Christmas Eve at the Green Lady jazz lounge with several artisanal cocktails. The Amtrak also affords a leisurely and hassle-free, if long, trip to several nearby cities. Charming AirBnBs abound and their owners are often up to telling you what’s hot and happening in their cities.

2. All-out holiday staycation.
This is the time to indulge your holiday hedonistic fantasies. Get a mini tree and summon your friends over to help you decorate. Pour some hot chocolate and Bailey’s. Stir it with a candy cane. Watch Hallmark movies all day long. Blare some holiday Spotify playlists. Go wild. You don’t need other people to have an excuse to have fun.

3. Start your own traditions.
There’s something comforting about rituals and traditions. I’m agnostic, and yet there’s something lovely about Christmas services and joining with others in celebrating community, kindness and radical love. If like me, you’re very queer and non-believing, the Unitarian Universalists are a very nice place to go. Vaguely Christian types can find a place at Urban Abbey which is Methodist but welcomes all. For a non-service-oriented tradition, the annual Handel’s Messiah concert put on by Voices of Omaha is both free and glorious.

4. Chosen family dinner party.
This, in itself, can be an excellent tradition. Catch your friends before they’re hauled off to their own families’ parties by throwing an early holiday dinner party and gift exchange session. Avoid the flavor conflicts of most potlucks by agreeing on a menu beforehand. If your friends aren’t the cooking type, make it a cookie party. Your friends can bake pre-made dough, can’t they? Add holiday cocktails for increased holiday cheer.

5. Talk to a therapist.
Sometimes, despite our best attempts at holiday cheer, the loneliness sets in. You find yourself standing alone in your kitchen, surrounded by piles of cookies and you realize that the fifth batch of cookies is just a futile, if delicious, attempt at running away from the depressing fact that even if your family is toxic and wildly manipulative, you do wish you could be with them maybe for just one evening. It helps to talk to a professional to armor up for that moment, to learn how to breathe deeply and take the time to recognize how healthy you are and how far you’ve come.

You can reach the counseling office on campus at 402.554.2409. If they are unavailable and you just need to talk with someone, the crisis hotline at Boys Town can be found at 800-448-3000. You can also call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There’s no shame in sadness, and despite the feelings that sad jazzy Christmas music (and you know, emotional trauma) can make you feel, you’re never really alone during the holidays.