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How to Cope During Hard Anniversaries, Birthdays, and Holidays

When you’re working through personal challenges, some days can be harder than others. Whether it’s the first anniversary of your diagnosis, the fifth Father’s Day since you lost your dad, or yet another birthday spent apart from your child, chances are there are some occasions you’d just as soon skip.

You deserve to honor these events in a way that works best for you—and to take care of yourself in the process. Use these strategies to find strength on hard days like holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays. Share them with loved ones so they can help support you.

Whatever the occasion, you have the right to:

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1

Choose how you want to spend the day

Even the most understanding friends and family may expect you to be cheerful if it’s a holiday or other traditionally happy occasion. Talk to them ahead of time so they know how you’re feeling and what you’re up for this year. Let them know that you may change your mind, even at the last minute. Or tell them if you prefer to play it by ear. Research shows that we’re not actually that great at predicting how we’ll feel in the future, so leave yourself room for flexibility.1

2

Do only what feels right

If you don’t feel like marking the day in a certain way, don’t. Choose to honor old traditions if they comfort you. Maybe you want to make your mother’s rack of lamb for her since she’s not feeling up to it this Easter. Consider starting new traditions if you feel the need to do something different. To spark ideas, think about activities you’ve always wanted to do, places you’ve always wanted to visit, or special meals you’ve always wanted to make. New traditions can create something to look forward to in the future.

3

Let people help

Even the simplest of errands or tasks can feel daunting when you’re going through a tough time. Ask for and accept help with any of them. People who care about you will be happy to do something. Sometimes they just need a few ideas to get started.

4

Feel however you feel

These significant days can be filled with memories and traditions that cause unexpected and shifting emotions. There’s no one right way to be. People who tell you how you “should” feel or act may mean well, but they don’t know what’s best for you. Surround yourself with people who accept you as you are and try to limit your time with those people who don’t. If you’re being hard on yourself, try to think of how you would treat a friend in the same situation. Notice when you tell yourself how you “should” feel and try to replace those thoughts with acceptance of your feelings as they come.

5

Talk about it—or don’t

The question of whether and when to open up can be complicated. People may ask how you’re doing. With some friends and family, you can tell them how you’re really feeling without ruining their day. But not everyone will welcome honesty or be able to handle it calmly. In some moments, it may be easier to deflect the question than choose between opening up or giving a sugarcoated response. Consider thinking of topics of conversation you can dive into easily if you want to change the subject, like asking about their weekend plans.

6

Take care of yourself

Be gentle with yourself—this would be a hard time for anyone. Research shows that self-care can make it easier to cope with stress, especially during challenging times. Eat well, stay active, try to sleep, and give yourself the opportunity to relax when you need it.2

7

Hold on to hope

This particular day may not be the same as it was in the past. In fact, it may never quite look the way it did before. But it won’t necessarily always be this hard, either. You don’t know what the next year has in store for you, and you won’t always feel the way you do right now. Watch for signs of the mental trap of permanence—that is, believing that things will never get better. If you find yourself falling into it, try replacing words like “always” with “sometimes” to remind yourself that the future doesn’t have to be like the past.3

Endnotes

  1. Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert, “Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 14 (2005): 131–34; Daniel T. Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (New York: Knopf, 2006).
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff, “Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping,” Mayo Clinic website, September 16, 2017, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544.
  3. Steven F. Maier and Martin E. P. Seligman, “Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience,” Psychological Review 123 (2016): 349–67; Martin E. P. Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York: Pocket Books, 1991).
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