Grief & loss

7 Tips to Surviving the Holidays after Heartbreak

All the winter holidays hold one thing in common: a celebration of light. It makes sense, really. During the coldest, darkest time of year, here come the holidays, with their Diwali lamps, menorahs, and Yule logs, to set our hearts aglow.

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Diwali Lamps

Or not.

Let’s be honest: for those of us nursing a recent (or even not-so-recent) heartbreak, the holidays can be an emotional minefield.

Four months ago, my wife and I separated. Usually, at this time of year, we would be designing our family’s holiday cards and planning our annual party. Instead, I’m testing out self-care strategies to help me through this tender time.

In addition to twice-weekly yoga classes and my fledgling meditation practice, I’ve found these seven simple actions have a surprisingly powerful impact on my mood:

1. Eat Good Food

Anyone who has pulled an all-nighter fueled by Red Bull and Oreos (Anyone? Anyone?) knows how food can affect one’s mood.

Even though I’m tempted to eat chocolate chip cookies for dinner on the nights my kids stay at their other mom’s house, I know I will feel better—physically and emotionally—if I give my body the nutrients it needs.

So: kale. Lots and lots of kale. Kidding! (Sort of.)

2. Get Enough Sleep

“Take a nap; you’ll feel better when you wake up.” I used to get so mad when my mom said that. But she was right. (Did you read that, Mom? You. Were. Right.)

Sleep deprivation messes with my brain chemistry, even after just a couple nights of broken sleep. So, no matter how deep the urge to check one more item off my to-do list (or, you know, watch one more episode of Transparent), I’m adamant about getting the sleep I need.

3. Stay Warm

Anticipating that cold + dark = lonely, I have promised myself I will not be cold this winter.

Drinking hot tea, bundling up in a favorite hoodie, sleeping with an extra blanket (or three)—these actions send my psyche the message that even during the darkest, coldest months, I am warm, cared for, and loved.

4. Get Moving

Whenever I feel stuck in a problem, I find the nearest steep hill and hike up it. Something about pushing my body’s limits—it grounds me in the moment, releases me from useless thinking, and leaves me with a fresh perspective on life.

Every. Single. Time.

5. The 90-Second Rule

In her book My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor shares a surprising fact about the physiology of emotional responses: they last 90 seconds.

Recently I heard Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön discussing the ramifications of this idea:

An emotion like anger that’s an automatic response lasts just 90 seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts longer, which is usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.*

Fascinating, right?

So as the holidays approach, with their many emotional triggers, I’ve been experimenting with the 90-second rule. When I notice big feelings rising up, I let them.

Here’s how Pema Chödrön describes the process:

Acknowledge the feeling, give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention, and even if it’s only for a few seconds, drop the story line about the feeling. This allows you to have a direct experience of it, free of interpretation. Don’t fuel it with concepts or opinions about whether it’s good or bad. Just be present with the sensation. Where is it located in your body? Does it remain the same for very long? Does it shift and change?*

Guess what? It doesn’t remain for very long. It does shift and change.

Science is rad.

6. Tap Into Universal Love

Okay, here’s where I reveal myself to be the granola-eating, tree-hugging California-born-and-bred hippie gal you probably already suspected me to be:

I believe love lives not only in the particular relationships I have with particular people, but everywhere.

I believe love is like the air that surrounds us. All I need to do is breathe it in.

And thank goodness (note: I did not say “thank goddess”) I believe that, because on nights that could otherwise feel unbearably lonely, I have an endless supply of love, just waiting for me.

(Go ahead, hum “Kumbaya.” I can take it.)

7. Light Candles

If so many major religions agree on it, maybe there’s something to this whole “celebrate light in winter” thing?

This much I know is true: I need more light, literally and figuratively.

So: candles.

Their warm glow, the way the flames flicker, moving shadows around the room—candles create a presence that invites reflection and meditation.

Watching a candle burn, I imagine all the people throughout history who—long before electricity and S.A.D. happy lights—lit fires to ward off winter’s dark.

Watching a candle burn, I call to mind the winter holidays’ messages about resilience, triumph, faith, and renewal.

Slowly, I begin to feel less like a single person nursing a private heartbreak and more like I am part of a larger, collective effort to lean toward love, light, and hope.

(Go ahead, hum “Kumbaya.” I can take it.)

How about you? What are you doing to take care of yourself through the holidays? (Note: This is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know.)

 

*Pema Chödrön, “The Fundamental Ambiguity of Being Human,” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review; Fall 2012, Vol. 22 Issue 1

Photo Credit: Cheryl Dumesnil

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12 Comments

  1. Clare Masson says:

    Thanks for this. I feel like I should print it and hang it in the bathroom.

    Also, have your made kale chips? Yum. (Kale + olive oil + sea salt and bake).

    • I am totally losing the “reply” game. See below for my reply (that is actually a comment) and my revision to the reply (that is actually a reply to my comment that was supposed to be a reply). Guess who did NOT follow tip #2 last night?

  2. I love kale chips! (Of course.) I used to make them with brewers yeast, to add a cheesy flavor, but my kids hated the smell so that got banned.

  3. this is so beautifully written. I’m sorry.

  4. This is so wonderful . . . I’m sending it to everybody. There are all kinds of reasons for dreading the holidays. I know this advice will help us all. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. Deborah Goldstein says:

    Number 5 – Science IS rad! And so are you!!

    Fantastic, useful tips that I have shared and that I will use myself to get through the dark, cold days of winter.

  6. This was a beautifully written post. Thank you for sharing such important ways to be kind to ourselves and how important self-care is.

    I shared on one of my FB pages to help spread the word.

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