By Dana Asby, Education Coordinator, New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center
During the second holiday season of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us approach this time carrying immense burdens. Educators, families, and young people are exhausted from balancing heavy workloads and personal stressors, grieving lost loved ones or routines, and feeling a sense of uncertainty about the future. As we reach the height of the holiday season, we can increase our resiliency and buffer against depression and stress by practicing gratitude. We can give the young people we care for this gift of gratitude by creating opportunities for them to show appreciation for their own tenacity and the efforts of the community and family that helped them weather the storms of this year.
Shifting Our Focus from What’s Wrong to What’s Working
The holiday season that starts just before Thanksgiving and goes through New Year’s Day profoundly impacts our moods. According to a survey of around 2,000 people by the American Addiction Centers (2020), 25% of people reported higher rates of depression, 62% said they were moderately anxious, and 84% reported moderate or overwhelming stress levels during the holiday period. For people in recovery from substance misuse, reports of unmanageable stress levels rose to 94%.
With the increased number of events and opportunities for family conflict, lower levels of well-being are not surprising. With the challenges of the holiday season come many joys: the opportunity to slow down and spend quality time with those we love, reasons to gather in community to reflect on the year’s accomplishments, and a chance to create new traditions or revive ones that may have been paused last year. Families and educators can model this practice to help young people find the positive when they experience holiday stress or depression.
When we approach this time of year with an attitude of gratitude, we can actually change the neural pathways in our brain and begin to train ourselves to find the joy in the holidays before the frustration. Our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative, but through cognitive reframing, we can rewire them to look for the joy first:
Instead of focusing on whether or not the cookies you’re gifting to loved ones will turn out perfectly, try inviting your child or another family member into the kitchen and expressing appreciation for each person you plan to deliver these good enough cookies to as you frost them.
Instead of letting your anxiety related to holiday events overshadow moments of togetherness, thank your body’s alarm system for looking out for your well-being and consider whether or not you truly need to attend every event, prioritizing quality time over quantity.
Instead of ruminating on past family gatherings that didn’t turn out how you’d hoped, reflect on the lessons you learned and will take into this year’s gatherings, thanking yourself for taking the time to recognize the growth that can come out of conflict.
Creating a Family or School Gratitude Practice
Research has revealed a host of positive benefits of developing a regular practice of expressing gratitude, including improved physical and psychological health, higher levels of happiness and satisfaction with life, reduction in materialism, and stronger development of patience, humility, and wisdom (Allen, 2018). Shawn Achor, a researcher from Harvard, found that the simple act of writing down three things you are grateful for each day for 21 days “significantly increases your optimism, and holds it for the next six months” (Stillman, 2016). The key to bringing all of the positive benefits of gratitude through the holiday season and into the new year is to find a way to make gratitude a routine.
Whether you’re helping build the gratitude muscles of a young person you care about at home or school, you can start building the habits of appreciation by making time and space for saying “Thank you” regularly. Here are some ideas:
Sharing Circle: Choose a time each day—at the start of a meal, during Morning Meeting, at the end of the school day, on the ride to/from school—where your entire family or class can spend a moment sharing what they are most grateful for that day.
Thank You Garland: Create a paper garland to decorate your home or classroom by asking the young people you care for to join you in writing notes of appreciation on slips of paper and linking them together to form a chain of thanks.
Gratitude Journal or Poster: Create a keepsake of gratitude over time or in the moment by having young people record something they are grateful for, perhaps embellishing their words with drawings or mementos.
Thank You Cards: In this season of gift-giving, we can teach gratitude to the children we care for by showing them the importance of expressing thanks when someone does something kind for us. You may even choose to ask your child to write a thank you card before they pull that new toy out of the box to play with it.
No matter how you choose to express your gratitude this holiday season, if you make time and space to give thanks regularly, you’ll start to see your mood lift, and it will be easier to find the joy amongst the difficulties. Take time especially to say thank you to those in your circle who have helped keep you motivated to get through this challenging year.
Allen, S. (2018). The science of gratitude. Greater Good Science Center.
American Addiction Centers. (2020). Holiday highs and lows.
Stillman, J. (2016). Gratitude physically changes your brain, new study says. Inc.com