Answer these two questions, and we will help you find care that is right for you.

Please make sure you update age and diagnosis.

View Article

When the Holidays Don’t Feel Jolly

November 28, 2016

By Tracey Gagne, EdS, LPC, NCC, DBT Counselor, Skyland Trail

The holidays come wrapped in a lot of “shoulds.”

It’s the holidays, you should feel happy.

It’s the holidays, you should want to spend them with your family.

It’s the holidays, you should show people you care with the gift of (insert product name here).

But for some people, especially those struggling with a mental health disorder, they may not feel like celebrating, and all those “shoulds” can be stressful. Our cultural expectation to be “jolly” during the holidays may be invalidating to people who are not feeling happy or grateful.

Using DBT to improve the moment

Learning and using strategies to “improve the moment” may be helpful for people who find themselves in this frame of mind. One strategy from dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, is called IMPROVE. IMPROVE is an acronym to help us bring to mind a set of tools to use when we’re feeling distressed. You don’t have to use all of them. Work through them until one works for you. With practice, some strategies may begin to feel more natural to you than others. The goal is to use the IMRPOVE strategies to get through the present moment and get to the next moment.

Here’s the IMPROVE acronym:

I imagery
M meaning
P prayer
R relaxing action
O one thing in the moment
V vacation
E encouragement


Try replacing the current situation with a visual image of a place and time that feels safe and calming. Imagine yourself in a place you feel at peace. Think of a happy memory or a favorite scene from a movie.

Or you can use imagery to help process your feelings. Imagine hurtful feelings draining out of your body like water out of a pipe. Envision fear or tension leaving your body in a cloud as you slowly exhale.


Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this situation?” See if you can find the grain of truth in the situation that can add to your understanding of yourself or the world around you.  Remember your spiritual values and think about how they apply here.


Prayer can mean opening yourself up to your own spirituality, or asking for strength from your higher power. It can mean acknowledging that you cannot control the behavior of others or the outcomes of the current situation, and turning it over to a higher power. Many people find the “serenity prayer” comforting.

Relaxing Action

Do something different with your body. If you can, take a walk or a hot bath. If you’re away from home try some simple stretches or just breathing deeply, a normal breath in with an extended exhale. Sometimes even changing your facial expression can make a difference.

One Thing in the Moment

We live in a world of multitasking, especially during the holidays. Try to put your mind on the present moment.  Isolate something calming or interesting in the present moment and focus on that.  Holding on to a physical sensation can be helpful, the texture of a favorite scarf or the scent of a peppermint.


Take a vacation. Not the kind you spend two weeks planning and come back from more depleted than when you left.  Take a blanket to the park or go on a walk. Take a day off and watch your favorite movies or have an arts and crafts day. Turn your phone off for a day. Maybe it’s taking a one hour breather from work.


In DBT, we call self-encouraging words “cheerleading statements.” Write a few down and keep them handy. When in distress, repeat them to yourself like a mantra. Your cheerleading statement can be simple, “I can stand it.” “I am ok.” “I am safe.” Remember tough situations you’ve lived through before. If you can stand that, you can stand this. 

Validating your own experience

In order to use the IMPROVE strategies, it’s important to try to recognize when you are feeling stressed. Sometimes we avoid thinking about our limitations. We carry the burden of the “should.” “It’s the holidays I shouldn’t feel bad. I should be trying to make this a special time of year for my family and friends.” But it’s helpful to validate our own experience instead of pretending to be OK when we’re not.

It’s ok to not feel good about the holidays.

It’s ok that things are not ok.

Validating the experiences of others

While cheerleading statements are helpful as self-encouragement they can feel invalidating when they come from others. Sometimes the best way to be supportive to someone who is struggling is to just listen and validate his or her experience. Instead of, “It’s the holidays, you should feel festive!” Try, “Yeah. Things are difficult for you right now. Is there something I can do to help?”

When making holiday plans, be aware of your own motivation. If you’re making plans based on, “This is what I want for the holiday,” those plans may not feel comfortable for your friend or loved one who is in a different space.  Try to accept your friend or loved one for where they are and allow them to participate in the holidays – or not participate – in a way that feels comfortable and authentic to them. Try not to interpret their decision to not participate, or to participate in a different way, as a measure of how they value your relationship.

Managing expectations

The holidays pose some specific challenges, including traveling and the expectation for gift giving.

If you currently are unemployed or underemployed, the expectation to buy gifts for everyone may feel daunting. If someone gives you a gift you may feel obligated to reciprocate. Remember that gifts do not have to be expensive, or even store bought. Consider expressing your appreciation through the gift of shared time together, something baked or home-made, services you could provide like babysitting or help organizing the garage, or even just a card with a hand-written note letting that person know he or she is an important part of your life.

Check in with yourself to understand your limits – both your financial capacity and your capacity to give to others right now. It’s ok if you can’t make grand gestures of generosity, even if that’s something you’ve done before.

Feel confident in setting boundaries while you travel or entertain guests as well. Prepare yourself in advance to remember that traveling to see family or friends sometimes doesn’t feel like a vacation, and that’s ok. You don’t have to visit everyone in the tri-state area during this one trip. And you are allowed to have down time when you don’t see other people as well. Try to balance the priorities of others with your own needs for sleep, exercise, mindfulness, and healthy living.

In practicing dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, we try to eliminate the word “should” from our vocabulary, or at least replace it when we can. If you or someone you love is struggling this holiday season, try using this time of year to listen to one another and validate each individual’s current experience. Show your love and compassion in ways that feel comfortable for both of you. In so doing, you may feel the warmth of the season in a new and meaningful way.

Tracey Gagne, EdS, LPC, NCC, Outpatient DBT Counselor at Skyland TrailTracey Gagne, EdS, LPC, NCC, is a counselor with the Skyland Trail Outpatient DBT Program. Tracey is a licensed professional counselor and a nationally certified counselor with intensive training in DBT. Previous professional counseling experience includes positions with Skyland Trail, DeKalb Medical Center, DeKalb Community Service Board, and Anka Behavioral Health. She received an M.S. and Ed.S. in professional counseling from Georgia State University and a B.A. in English from Bridgewater State College.