How to survive the holidays when you’re heartbroken, a practical guide

Breakups suck all year round, but there is no worse time to experience a breakup than during the winter season when you’re bombarded by cheery holiday after cheery holiday—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas if you partake, New Year’s, and then just when you have enough time to get your head above water…Valentine’s Day. The central message at the heart of all these occasions is coming together with the people you love—making it a particularly painful time to have just lost someone you really cared about.

“There’s so much togetherness that happens during the holidays, so it makes that separation that you’ve just experienced that much more overt and that much more apparent,” said Dr. Danielle Dowling, a psychologist and life coach based in Southern California, in an interview with HelloGiggles. “When that person is no longer there during this time of year where we particularly focus on the coming together and the community and the sharing and the celebration, it just creates this huge void in our psyches and in our hearts.”

Breakups apparently tend to peak around the holidays—one study from a few years ago named December 11th as the most popular day to get dumped. So if you find yourself in this gut-wrenching situation, know that you’re definitely not the only one entering a dark place just as the twinkly lights are going up around town.

And it’s okay. You’re going to get through this. To help you along, here are 12 pretty sage ideas from relationship experts—literally a therapist and a doctor of psychology—on how to survive the holidays when you’re heartbroken.

1Recognize that it’s okay to feel like garbage right now.

Aimee Hartstein, a psychotherapist and social worker practicing in New York and New Jersey, said it’s extremely important to allow yourself to feel your feelings. Don’t expect yourself to snap out of it and feel joyful just because it’s the so-called “most wonderful time of the year.” What’s true for everyone else doesn’t have to be true for you.

“The holidays are a very idealized time. Especially with the advent of social media, it looks like everyone is having a better time than we are,” she told HelloGiggles. “Even for people who are in an established relationship, the holidays can often feel like they don’t live up to our childhood fantasies or the fantasies we see in Hollywood movies.”

If you feel like shit, you feel like shit—trying to pretend like that’s not the case is only going to make you feel worse later on. Your emotions will just build up inside, waiting for the perfect moment to come exploding out. Cue the dramatic holiday dinner meltdown. That doesn’t have to be you. Be open with yourself and others about what you’re going through.

2Embrace the “middle way” mindset.

You may find yourself wanting to burrow underneath nine blankets on the couch and binge-watch the most mindless TV shows Netflix can offer you. That’s okay, according to Dr. Dowling. Take a few days under the covers, she said. Then get out to those holiday parties.

“Totally cocooning is going to create more isolation and loneliness, but it’s also important to pay attention to when you just need a little bit of time to be in your own company and pull back,” she explained.

She calls this the “middle way,” and it’s a great mindset to adopt as you’re navigating this season with a broken heart. Don’t turn down every party you get invited to because you feel too miserable to be alive—seeing people and keeping your life moving is key to getting you out of your funk. At the same time, be kind to yourself and recognize that you’re going to need some grieving time as well. Instead of attending all eight holiday parties, pick two or three of the ones you’ll really enjoy and make the effort to show up. A little bit of moping, a little bit of keeping yourself engaged—find your middle ground.

3Eat well.

Your physical health will likely be the last thing on your mind during this high-stress time of year when you’re navigating both a breakup and family festivities. You may want to eat your emotions away, splurge on those festive party feasts, and numb out with booze. Don’t fall into this trap.

“A healthy diet is as good for your brain as it is for the rest of your body,” Dr. Dowling explained. “Unhealthy foods are linked to a range of neurological problems. Certain nutrient deficiencies increase the risk of depression and anxiety…[Eating well] is going to help ward off any extra anxiety, depression, low energy.”

4Sleep well.

When you’re going through a heap of emotions, it can be easy to lose track of the hours and end up staying up late crying or brainlessly staring at screens trying to keep the mind active. But your sleep is more vital now than ever.

“Even a couple nights of broken sleep really affects how well you think. It affects your mental health, that cognitive, behavioral, and emotional equilibrium,” Dr. Dowling said. “If you’re already feeling heartbroken, if you’re already feeling a loss, a void, broken sleep or a lack of sleep is just going to perpetuate it. You’re not going to be able to think clearly…It’s going to be harder to do the other things that are going to keep you centered and as aligned as possible as you go through your grieving process.”

5Spend time with your people.

“Breakups can leave you feeling very alone and isolated. The best thing to do during a breakup is always to reach out to your support system. This is extra important during the holidays,” Hartstein told us. “People often find that their friends and family are extra receptive during these times. Either they are also a bit lonely or having a hard time and can use the connection, or if things are going well for them, it’s still nice to connect to people who need our support.”

Importantly, the idea isn’t that hanging out with your friends and family is going to make you suddenly feel completely better. It won’t, Dr. Dowling said:

“We don’t have to put pressure on it to make all the pain of the breakup go away. You can still go through your grieving process, but then you have this happy moment, this light-filled moment, to just sort of balance it out—to just act as a counterbalance. Yes, I’m grieving. Yes, my heart thinks about this. But that’s not the whole picture of my life. That’s not the whole story. My life is so much bigger than that, my life is so much more expansive...It’s both. It’s both the pain and the joy.

6Create new traditions.

If your past holidays usually involved your ex, don’t spend this season mourning the loss of that person and the loss of all your beloved traditions at the same time. Instead, create new ones that will substantially add to your feelings of fullness.

“Maybe you host a decorating party with some of your closest besties and friends. Maybe you have everyone bring an ornament, so every time you look at the tree, your tree is full of ornaments from people who love you,” Dr. Dowling suggested. “Or maybe you do something around the menorah. Maybe everybody donates a candle for each one of those days. So every time you burn the candle, you think, oh, my good friend so-and-so gave this to me. Oh, my favorite aunt so-and-so gave this to me.”

7Put yourself at the top of your holiday list.

Indulge a little. You might have a long list of things you need to prepare, people you need to get gifts for, and all the other tasks that come with the holidays. Make sure you put yourself at the very top of that list, Dr. Dowling said. Do little things that will bring you happiness: splurge on those new shoes you’ve been eyeing, get that massage you’ve been thinking about, carve out some time for you to paint or write or make music or whatever hobby brings you joy, or just sprinkle a little extra sugar in your cup of coffee in the morning.

8Really take stock of what went wrong in the relationship.

Yes, processing the breakup will help you find closure, and you should definitely make time for this process, no matter how busy your holiday schedule might be.

“Take a really close and honest look at your relationship,” Hartstein said. “You might not have wanted this breakup, but chances are, there was something in the relationship that was not working.”

Hartstein recommended recalling some of the negative aspects of the relationship that you probably haven’t been thinking about during your mourning process. Usually when you lose someone, all you can focus on are the good parts of the relationship—but remembering the things that used to drive you crazy about your ex might help you feel a little less miserable over what you’ve lost.

9Acknowledge the love you have.

Try spending a few minutes a day reflecting on the love in your life, Dr. Dowling recommended. Try journaling or just sitting quietly in bed when you first wake up, listing all the people in your life who you love and who love you back. Consider reminding yourself of a different person every day as you move through your grieving process.

10Give some love away.

One beautiful way to heal from love lost is to put more love out into the universe. When you do some kind for another person, your body has a physiological response. Your brain gets a rush of endorphins (the same stuff behind your runner’s high) and oxytocin (that lovey-dovey, stress-reducing hormone released during sex), and its reward center lights up as if you just received a gift of kindness yourself. And hey, it’s the holidays. No better time to dole out some kindness, right?

“Make a commitment at least one time a day where you will consciously choose to put some love out into the world,” Dr. Dowling recommended. “Don’t overthink this. Don’t over-strategize. We want to go through this process as easy as we can. Make a phone call. Send a card. Send that email. Random acts of kindness—buy someone a cup of coffee. You know your co-worker loves that double-shot almond milk cappuccino. Go ahead and get it.”

11Experiment with the “90-Second Rule.”

Did you know every emotional response only lasts an average of 90 seconds?

“An emotion like anger that’s this automatic response lasts just 90 seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it’s run its course,” Dr. Dowling said. “One and a half minutes—that’s all. When it lasts longer—which it usually does—it’s because we’ve chosen to somehow rekindle it or focus on it.”

How can you actualize this information? Dr. Dowling called upon the wisdom of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, who said:

"Acknowledge the feeling. Give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention. And even if it’s only for a few seconds, drop the storyline 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?"

If you find yourself in an emotional breakdown, try this exercise for just 90 seconds. Just sit with those emotions, quietly and compassionately, instead of trying to shoo them away. When you acknowledge them consciously, that emotional response can more naturally pass.

12Remember that this will pass, no matter what.

“The best thing to do during heartbreak is to know that it doesn’t last forever,” Hartstein said. “The feelings can be really painful and devastating. I’ve counseled many, many people in the throes of heartbreak who swear that they are going to feel like this forever. They all get through it!”

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