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Reclaiming Thanksgiving - Embracing the Holiday in a Way That Works for You and Your Mental Health

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 the 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.

Gratitude Practice

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 showed 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 towards offers a combined sense of calm and excitement. So if you aren’t looking forward to Thanksgiving, what is something you could introduce into that day that could help you look forward to it?

Maybe it’s a hike with a friend and take away 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 favourite 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 for 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.

Relaxation and breathing exercises

If you are feeling really anxious about the holidays, try practising progressive muscle relaxation and mindful breathing to lower your overall tension and anxiety levels.

Progressive muscle relaxation

This technique can help you release the tension in your body;

  • Find a comfortable place to sit down.

  • Focus on your breathing, being mindful to take steady relaxed breaths. Inhale slowly, then exhale slowly.


Turn your attention to your right hand. Slowly, clench your hand into a fist as tight as you can, feeling the tension in your forearm. Hold for a few seconds and release. Repeat with the left hand.


Bend your right arm and tense your bicep as tight as you can. Hold for a few seconds and release. Repeat with the left arm.


Lower your eyebrows in a frown and then raise them as high as you can. Hold for a few seconds and release.


Squeeze your eyes tightly shut and scrunch up your face. Hold for a few seconds and release.


Open your mouth as wide as you are able. Hold and release.


Gently roll your head back so you are looking at the ceiling. Tense your neck muscles and release. Gently, roll your head back up.


Lift your shoulders up towards your ears, tensing your shoulder muscles as you go. Hold and release, dropping your shoulders back down. Next, circle your shoulders to release any left over tension.


Take a deep breath filling your lungs and chest with air, hold for as long as you can. Release and exhale.


Tense your stomach muscles across your midsection as tightly as you can. Hold and release.

Hips & buttocks

Squeeze your buttock muscles together as tight as you can. Hold and release.


Tense the muscles in your thighs as tightly as you can. Hold and release.


Put your legs out straight and bend your feet towards you, tensing your calf muscles. Hold and release.


Curl your toes towards the floor, tensing your feet muscles. Hold and release.

Feel free to skip any of the steps if you have an injury in that area.

Mindful breathing

The aim of mindful breathing is to find a state of calmness, where we can allow thoughts to come and go without judgement.

  • Sit in a comfortable position keeping your back reasonably straight.

  • Gently focus your attention on your breathing, noticing your breath coming in and going back out. Don’t make any effort to change your breathing.

  • Notice any sensations in your body as you breathe, like your tummy lifting up and down. Imagine a balloon inside your tummy, inflating and deflating as you breathe.

  • Thoughts will likely pop in and out of your mind. It’s ok for them to be there, don’t judge them, just let them go and return your focus of attention to your breathing.

  • When your attention drifts off to something else, a sound, a thought or a feeling, simply notice and bring your attention back to your breathing. It doesn’t matter how many times this happens, just bring your attention back.

Try to practice mindful breathing every day for a few minutes as the more you practice the better you will get at it. Mindful breathing can help you feel present in the moment, and relieve anxiety and stress.

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


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