February 13, 2015

Let’s be honest for a second—Valentine’s Day can be a pretty miserable day for some people. If you have a significant other, there is so much pressure to make the day perfect with flowers, chocolates, a card or a date and if you’re single, well it’s a day where everyone else’s happiness and togetherness gets rubbed in your face.

Maybe you aren’t as sensitive as I am, but for those of you who are going to be avoiding Cupid’s arrow at all costs, just know that you aren’t the only one.

Whether you are enjoying the holiday or just wishing it would be the 15th already, there are some things you can do to try and make it the best day possible. I spoke with three experts—Dr. Jocelyn Charnas, Ph. D., Dr. Dave Canter, Ph. D., and Dr. Sonia Kahn, Psy. D.—all who are licensed clinical psychologists and focus on relationship issues, to get their takes on how to make this Valentine’s Day a good one.

What advice would you give to someone who is feeling anxious about Valentine’s Day?

Jocelyn Charnas: I encourage people to make a plan. Anticipation can be a very healthy defense. Whether it’s in conjunction with your significant other or deciding how to spend the time solo, if you know Valentine’s Day is anxiety-provoking for you, schedule coffee with a friend, make an appointment for a haircut, plan a Netflix marathon, buy ingredients and cook a favorite meal. Often anxiety is the result of uncertainty, so making a plan in advance is a great way to take some control.

Dave Canter: Remind yourself that holidays cause nearly everyone to feel some anxiety. If you are not in a relationship, you may feel some sadness about this. If you are in a relationship, you may worry about buying the perfect card or gift or planning the perfect romantic evening. Or you may worry that your significant other may forget you or not put enough thought into their gift for you. So, it is “normal” to feel some anxiety on holidays like Valentine’s Day.

Sonia Kahn: Take a moment to be introspective and process your anxiety; this requires spending a few minutes thinking more deeply about what you are feeling. Begin by taking deep breaths. Then ask yourself: What exactly about Valentine’s Day is making you feel anxious? Why is this holiday in particular upsetting you? Take a moment to sit with these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and then imagine them floating away. After a few minutes, but before this exercise becomes completely overwhelming, utilize one or more of the healthy coping and self-care strategies you already use—or try a new one—so you can reduce the impact the anxiety is having on your body and mind.

Why is it important for everyone to practice self-care, especially during holidays like this?

JC: Holidays can be a vulnerable time for everyone, not just those living with mental illness. It’s easy to use them as a marker for what we feel is missing from our lives. But they also present an opportunity to look inward and make some positive change. Whether it’s about being more mindful of our physical health, creating a more manageable work/life balance, or just being kinder to ourselves, the care and attention we relish on ourselves can act as a buffer against the holiday blues.

DC: Holidays often cause us to focus on others and their happiness and lead us to try to do too much or to strive for perfection in our gift giving or date planning. So it is important to take short breaks and remember to do things like deep breathing to help keep yourself centered and connected to your body. Remind yourself to not try to do too much. It is better to have some genuine low-key times with friends and loved ones rather than trying to “do it all” which will likely only lead to stress and disappointment.

SK: Self-care encompasses the entire slew of activities people engage in that make them feel happy, healthy, relaxed, or simply less stressed. Naturally then, self-care can include everything from bubble baths to yoga; from talking on the phone to your best friend to reading a page-turner; from running to a Breaking Bad marathon. On a holiday like Valentine’s Day, which may feel reserved for those who are “in love” or have found their mates, we are liable forget that about the things we already do in our lives that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Don’t make that mistake!

What should someone living with a mental illness make sure to do or not to on Valentine’s Day?

JC: Know thyself! Gaining insight into what it is about the holiday that creates anxiety or stress for you is an important means of coping. Is it loneliness that’s generating your anxiety? Is the ubiquitous presence of chocolates and sweets a trigger for food/eating/body image issues? Is the holiday putting pressure on a new or faltering relationship? Knowing the specific sources of our anxieties and difficult feelings can be the difference between a challenging day and a more prolonged crisis.

DC: Remember that Valentine’s Day only lasts 24 hours. We can tolerate almost anything as long as we know it is only temporary in nature. Beyond that, be good to yourself in your self-talk and in your actions. Engage in good self-care behaviors and use the positive coping strategies that have worked for you in the past. Do not allow the stress or negative feelings you experience to get you to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as using alcohol or illegal drugs, to temporarily dull emotional pain. Use your social support network and reach out to caring friends and family.

SK: Living with a mental illness certainly does not mean that the hum-drum built up around Valentine’s Day has to affect your symptomology – although it can, and will, if you let it. If you are the type of person who reacts to the sentiments wrapped in up Valentine’s Day with feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, or other negative emotions, the best thing you can do is plan not to spend it alone. This year Valentine’s Day falls on a Saturday, which is often an easier day to isolate oneself. However, the onus is on you to make plans — call up someone you love and trust and ask them if they can spend the day with you.

If I am in a relationship, how can I relieve some of the pressure of this day and make it easier on myself as well as my significant other?

JC: In my experience, expectations are the biggest culprit when it comes to Valentine’s Day pressure and disappointment. Problems can develop when members of the couple have differing expectations of the holiday. Maybe she thinks it’s a just a Hallmark holiday but he’s been planning for weeks. Maybe she feels the relationship is more serious and he’s taking it lightly. The best way to address this issue is to communicate! I am all for surprises and spontaneity but checking in to assess what page your partner is on is a good way to take the pressure off.

DC: This is a critical issue for couples. Do not buy into all the hype regarding Valentine’s Day. Keep in mind what it should be about, which is showing your love, affection, and admiration to those you are in relationship with. It is not about spending a lot of money or having everything turn out “perfectly.” So, have realistic expectations and try to not get too upset if things (including your partner’s reactions) do not go as planned. Enjoy the time you get to spend with your loved one and try to be grateful for the relationship and the time you get to spend together. Reflect on what the relationship means to you and try to express that in some way to your loved one.

SK: Valentine’s Day is called a “Hallmark Holiday” for a reason! And like any other holiday individuals and families choose to celebrate in whatever way makes the most sense for them. All that is to say, think together about what the two of you want to do together to mark the event. (Hey – it’s a good excuse to have a conversation about your expectations and how they can align!) If that means going to a fancy dinner and drinking champagne, great! If it means sharing a box of chocolates and renting a movie OnDemand, wonderful! If it means foregoing the entire thing and treating it like a normal night, fabulous! Valentine’s Day does not have to be the day you use to celebrate yourselves as a couple — anniversaries and randomly-chosen days can work just as well.

If I am single, what can I do to avoid negative thoughts and feelings on Valentine’s Day?

JC: I like to remind patients that Valentine’s Day is about love which takes many forms beyond just the romantic. Of course it’s always ok to sit the holiday out, but doing something that you love is another option. Are you an animal lover? Volunteer at a shelter. An admirer of modern art? Take a stroll through a museum. Love yoga? Take a favorite class. There are many ways to celebrate the people and things we love. Sometimes creativity and flexibility of thought are our best allies during potentially difficult times.

DC: It is important to realize that we cannot control our feelings. Our emotions are valuable and important information our mind and body are communicating to us. So, notice what you are feeling and be accepting of what your feelings are. Then, remember that we do not have to act on our feelings. We can choose to act in positive and creative ways to cope with our feelings. We cannot directly control our feelings, but we can control how we choose to behave, so make healthy choices. You won’t regret it!

SK: Negative thinking is a trap that even the most secure and confident people in the world can fall into, and the best way to avoid being swept up in a tornado of negativity (caused by your own mind) is to utilize what you know about yourself and focus on that to calm the storm. If you know you tend to feel poorly about yourself because you are single, use Valentine’s Day to make a plan for meeting a partner. Investigate online dating sites, look into meetup.com groups, or start calling therapists who specialize in relationship issues. Take the power back into your own hands. We truly do have the power to shape our destinies, at least to some degree. No one is destined to be alone—and if you are reading this post, you are further along than many others feeling the same way!

How can I help a friend or a loved one who may be struggling on Valentine’s Day?

JC: Often the impulse is to try to “undo” the negative thoughts and feelings of loved ones. It can be difficult to see our friends and family members sad or lonely, so we try to cheer them up, tell them it’s not so bad, to focus on the positive. Sometimes though, it can be important to allow others (and ourselves, too) to sit with negative thoughts and feelings, rather than sweep them under the rug. Giving voice to things like loneliness, isolation, or the wish for a supportive partner often proves to be an important first step towards addressing those issues in our lives. Sometimes offering your ear, rather than cheer, is the best medicine.

DC: The first step is to ask your friend or loved one how they are feeling. Do it in a way to indicate you genuinely care. Once you reach out to open up a dialogue, be willing to be a patient listener. If you have the time, offer to do something with the person you care about, even if that is just hanging out or watching TV together. Your caring and willingness to spend time with them will mean a lot to them and help them to cope on a day that may be difficult for them.

SK: Support them in the best way you can. If that means canceling dinner with your husband to stand in line for the ’50 Shades of Grey’ premier, I’m sure he will understand. Many people find their way to therapy when they realize they do not know how to ask others to meet their needs. If your friend or loved one is struggling on Valentine’s Day, it is likely that they have not yet figured out how to satisfy their relationship cravings. Don’t expect they will always be able to tell you what they need — do your best to intuit what that may be, offer whatever support you can, and help them find their way to working with a professional who can help them learn to advocate for themselves and meet their personal goals – including finding love.

Jocelyn W. Charnas, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Manhattan. She treats adults with anxiety, depression, phase-of-life and adjustment difficulties, and specializes in interpersonal and relationship issues. She was featured in New York Weddings for her work with engaged couples—work that has earned her the title,“The Wedding Doctor.” She was also a contributor to the recently published book 40 Days of Dating.

Dave Canter, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Arlington, Va. He is both a consumer and a provider of mental health services. After working as an engineer for the U.S. Navy, he decided to seek out a career where he could more directly help people. Dr. Canter specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders and in providing relationship counseling. 

Dr. Sonia Kahn, Psy. D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Arlington, Va. She specializes in individual, couple and group therapy. She enjoys working with clients on exploring their interpersonal patterns so they can break out of the maladaptive cycles that keep them from feeling fulfilled in their relationships. 

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