It's not always easy to know what to do when a friend is going through a breakup, but especially when they're going through a breakup during the holidays. They're probably going to feel sad (or lonely, or confused, or all of the above) at any time of year. But heading into a season that focuses so much on relationships can make it all worse.
"The holidays are [when] we spend more time with people we care about, and so it can be an especially difficult season for a breakup," Brent Sweitzer, LPC, RPT, a professional counselor, tells Bustle. "[Breaking up during] the holidays can be especially stressful, given the expectation to bring a significant other to social engagements and spending time with family."
While it'll be up to your friend to figure out what they want to do as far as attending these events, you can always swoop in to offer support, see if they'd like to hang out, and ask if they need anything. "At a time like this, friendship can be a healing balm to the loss of a relationship," Sweitzer says.
Perhaps simplest of all is being down to listen, whether that means responding to texts, answering their calls, or offering to meet up for coffee so they can vent in person, all of which will help them manage how they're feeling. In fact, "one study showed how putting words to your feelings calms the part of the brain (the amygdala) responsible for the fight/flight/freeze stress response," Sweitzer says. "When people feel the safety to talk about how they feel, it literally calms their brain so that they can come up with their own solutions of how to take care of themselves."
Depending on how they feel about the breakup, your friend may be able to sort themselves out and come up with a game plan for recovering. But if they're really going through it, that's when you'll want to offer a few distractions. "Sometimes it can be helpful to a friend to initiate activities that take their mind off the pain from the breakup," Sweitzer says. Suggest something that'll easily fit into your busy holiday schedules, like going out to dinner on a Tuesday night, staying home and baking, watch funny TV shows — whatever sounds fun and low-key.
While a one time hangout will be a great show of support, continue being as proactive as possible about reaching out, Katie Lear, LPC, a licensed counselor, tells Bustle. "If you have holiday errands to run, ask [them] to come along," she says. "It doesn't need to be anything special or fancy [...] Just being out of the house and around other people can be a welcome distraction, and by offering an activity, you're taking the burden off your friend to reach out."
It's all about being there in small ways and big ways, and throwing out options so they know they aren't alone in what they're going through. Even if they don't want to go out, simply knowing you're waiting in the wings can be a comfort. "A breakup signifies the loss of an important relationship and it’s normal to go through the stages of grief," Alisha Powell, PhD, LCSW, a therapist and social worker, tells Bustle. "Understand that they need time to process and create a new normal without their former significant other."
That might not happen until well after the holidays, so it's OK if your friend wants to put their head down, ignore texts, and simply get through the season without any pressure to go out or feel festive. It will be beneficial, however, for them to get back into a routine as soon as possible. And that's another area where you can offer to help, once the timing is right.
"Studies have shown that the more we can get back into our routine of life then the more we can engage in the healing process," Rachel Elder, a licensed mental health counselor, tells Bustle. "If they enjoy working out, join them for a workout [...] If they had a weekly date night [with their ex], join them for a friend date and have quality conversation time together."
Making plans, or simply listening to them vent, will help your friend immensely throughout the holidays, but the real recovery isn't likely to happen until the holidays are over and they have time to think without distractions. By showing up and being supportive, you can help them through that process now and into the new year.
Lieberman, M. (2011). Putting feelings into words: The neural basis of unintentional emotion regulation. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi: 10.1037/e634112013-130
Brent Sweitzer, LPC, RPT, professional counselor
Katie Lear, LPC, licensed counselor
Alisha Powell, PhD, LCSW, therapist and social worker
Rachel Elder, licensed mental health counselor