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How to reclaim Thanksgiving in a way that works for you

We’re full steam ahead into the holiday season, and our first stop is Thanksgiving – a holiday known for its pumpkin pie, football and giving thanks. However, for many this holiday season will be eclipsed by stress, anxiety and mental health struggles.

As well as seeing relatives you haven’t seen (or wanted to see!) in a year or two thanks to the pandemic, you may be anticipating tensions at the dinner table, social pressures and expectations.

If this is the kind of Thanksgiving celebration you’re anticipating, maybe it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate. If your yearly traditions don’t feel joyful anymore, the good news is that you have all the power to define what this celebration means to you and reclaim the holidays for yourself.

We have some tips and reminders below to help you assess whether your traditions need updating, and help you enjoy the break that you deserve.

You have permission to not be thankful this Thanksgiving

Know that despite what social media, magazine articles and others around you say, you do not have to deliver a performance of gratitude if that doesn’t feel authentic for you. If you’ve had a challenging year, trying to feel a sense of gratitude and appreciation may feel very difficult.

You’re certainly not alone. For those that have experienced a tough year or where the holidays are a painful anniversary or reminder of something missing, you may feel anything but jolly and grateful.

You are allowed to take this break to instead acknowledge any pain you may silently be holding inside. Letting ourselves feel negative emotions and validating them is critical to our mental health. And gratitude is best when it comes naturally, so if that’s not right now, you have our full permission to save it for another day.

Our gratitude practice tip: If you’re struggling to feel grateful but still want to partake in the gratitude tradition without invalidating your feelings, instead, think about one person (including yourself) who has shown up to support you through a difficult experience and tell them how much it means to you.

Throw a Friendsgiving that beats the real thing

Friendsgiving - a concept all too familiar with students who have struggled to get home over the holidays! It’s also a great way to avoid the unnecessary stress, triggering comments from family members and political discussions. If the holidays are hard for you, it’s important to ensure that you have people around you that are supportive of your journey and the ways you wish you celebrate this day.

Let go of the guilt of tradition

Thanksgiving is sandwiched between Halloween and the December holidays, with lots of studying in between. For many, this time of year can become overwhelming and stressful. Instead of forcing yourself to your aunt's house and dreading every moment, consider staying home, ordering pizza, wearing pjs, and watching a movie. It’s your holiday, and no matter what anyone else says, you have the freedom to do whatever you like. Repeat after me - it’s healthy to do something relaxing!

If something isn’t serving you, tradition is not a good enough reason to continue doing it. If spending an entire day with your family raises your cortisol levels through the roof, you could look to spend just a half day, and instead volunteer at a cause you care about in the afternoon. Sounds like a win-win to us.

Make new traditions that feel good

As creatures of habit, we can be comforted in the repetition of traditions. Having something to look forward to and plan toward offers a combined sense of calm and excitement. So if you aren’t looking forward to Thanksgiving, what is something you could introduce to that day that could help you look forward to it?

Maybe it’s a hike with a friend and takeaway for dinner? Maybe you introduce something new to your family gathering, like lighting a fire and making s’mores together for dessert. Grab a blank canvas and some paints from your local arts and crafts store and paint something on that day. Even if you are feeling sad on this day, that feeling can co-exist with snippets of joy. What truly makes you happy? Do more of that.

Have a couple of coping tools for when you need a minute

Decide beforehand on what strategies you will use to manage a moment that is emotionally charged or overwhelming. Escape to the bathroom with your device to cue up anything that might help make you laugh, calm down, or distract yourself in a tough moment. A scroll through TikTok, a guided meditation, relaxing music or looking at a folder of your favorite photos. Remember - It’s okay to take 30 minutes to yourself if you need it!

You could also look to nominate a safe person - it could be a family member, a friend, someone who knows what you’re going through and that you can make a quick glance at or reach out to if you’re struggling. You could also have a plan B if things aren’t working out the way you want them to - such as a friend coming to pick you up and take you home to watch a movie with some popcorn.

We hope that however you choose to celebrate Thanksgiving, you prioritize your own needs. Remember that the community is here to support you!


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