Feelings of apprehension, stress, and loneliness often accompany the anticipation of winter holidays for brain injury survivors and their caregivers. Typical stressors such as finances, unpleasant gatherings, and being too busy are much more difficult to manage.  When brain injury causes changes to employment, cognitive deficits, lowered emotional health, chronic fatigue, and sensitivity to stimulation, things can be that much harder.

Here are some tips and ideas for enjoying the holidays after a brain injury:

#1. Ignore the Holidays

I didn’t celebrate the holidays for the first couple of years after my brain injury and I have no regrets. You have experienced life-altering trauma and have suffered great loss. Let yourself take refuge, give yourself permission to avoid people and festivities, and take the time you need to grieve. Don’t feel guilty, don’t have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), and don’t feel pressure to be cheerful. But do communicate clearly to your friends and family about how you would like – or not like – to spend the holiday.

#2. Cutdown on your activities

The holidays don’t have to be all or nothing. Play it by ear and participate in the ways that you want, when you want, with the people you want. For example, maybe that means decorating your home but not attending any parties, or vice versa.

#3. Be open to change

Change your traditions. Your daily life has changed because of brain injury, shouldn’t your traditions get an update, too? This is especially if thinking about your old traditions is causing anxiety and/or exacerbating your symptoms. Let saying ‘no’ to peer pressure be one of your new traditions. Remember that if someone is trying to guilt-trip you into doing something that you don’t want to do, they’re not respecting your needs.

4. Think outside the social box

Instead of trying to meet up with everyone before the holidays, deliberately make plans to see them in January instead. This makes the gatherings less stressful, because people aren’t as busy and there’s no pressure to be festive. (I’ve been doing this for years.)

If you’re feeling lonely, but aren’t up for socializing:

  • Hand write letters and mail them to your friends and family. Tell them how much you appreciate them, share your favourite memories of them, or mention something that reminded you of them, and give them an update on your life. This is a great way to reach out and open a line of communication, especially with people that you haven’t spoken to in a long time. As a bonus, cursive handwriting is excellent for brain training and improving dexterity.
  • Seek out online brain injury support groups to receive (and give) encouragement from people that are struggling with similar issues. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for a list of online resources.)
  • Volunteer for a cause that is meaningful to you. Volunteering connects you to others while combating depression and giving you a sense of accomplishment.
  • Think of someone else that might be feeling lonely during the holidays. Years ago, I bought single serving packages of nut-free shortbread cookies, wrapped them in gift wrap, handed them to people who are homeless and wished them a happy holiday. The interactions were brief but very positive and meaningful.

#5 Clean house

Winter is the best time of the year to declutter, re-organize, and clean your home. This way, you can start the new year off with less stress, because clutter creates anxiety. The process of decluttering can also be therapeutic for brain injury survivors and caregivers. Letting go of old belongings (i.e. physical representations of their lives pre-injury) can help with letting go of the past emotionally. Go through each item that you own and think about the memories that you associate with it. Take a moment to reminisce sentimentally or to cry from grief, then honestly ask yourself if you still need or use or love the item. If not, be grateful for the role that it played in your life and then donate it to a good cause. Know that you’ll be helping others and focus on how happy you’ll be making someone else.

    • Have old textbooks that you don’t need anymore? Donate them to Text Books for Change
    • Have work clothes that don’t fit anymore? Donate them to Dress for Success or Dress Your Best
    • Have a fancy dress you’ll never wear again? Formal wear can be donated to Toronto teens for prom wear here, while the The Bride Project is a great place to donate wedding gowns, with all the proceeds going to cancer research.
    • Don’t forget about those old electronics that you no longer use, places like Free Geek Toronto or Reboot Canada will be happy to take them off your hands.
    • Find other places to donate items you no longer need, HERE.

#6. Re-think gifts:

Instead of buying gifts, make them! Creating things with your hands can be very effective at elevating mood. It’s an activity that you can do at home, by yourself or with others. If you don’t want to worry about having to gather materials, do a google search for holiday craft workshops in your area. The costs are usually quite affordable.

If you’re typically a baker but don’t have the energy to bake more than one or two types of cookies this year, host a cookie exchange party. Everyone brings one large batch of homemade cookies. After sampling all of the different treats, people can choose an assortment of cookies to take home with them for enjoying, gifting, or entertaining.

Having to think of, find/make, and pay for gifts for everyone in your circle can by very stressful and expensive. Suggest to your friends and family that you do a Gift Swap Game or Secret Santa system, so everyone only has to bring a single gift. Another fun idea is to do a Re-Gift Gift Exchange where people bring a gift that they previously received from someone else, so no money needs to be spent.

 Holiday after brain injury
Photo by Edward Eyer from Pexels

#7. Give the gift of self-care

Caregivers, take note! Schedule joy into every day by creating an advent calendar for yourself. Come up with 25 simple and fun, self-care activities for yourself that take between 10 minutes to 1 hour to complete. Write them on separate pieces of paper and fold them up. Place the pieces of paper in a jar/box/bowl and mix them up. Starting on December 1, pick out one piece of paper each day and complete the activity. For example, if you love to read, then one of your items could be to read a book for 30 minutes; if you love TV, then watch a full episode; if you love art, sketch or colour in an adult colouring book, eat pie for breakfast – the options are limitless!

#7. Redefine ‘Host with the Most’

If people have typically gathered for festivities at your place, remember that it’s ok to change traditions. Some tricks to make hosting easier include:

  • Ask for help, lots of it. This includes: planning, preparing, shopping, cleaning up (before and after) etc.
  • Have a potluck
  • Don’t stress about the state of your home. It can be messy and people will still have a good time, and don’t decorate unless you really want to
  • Order in!
  • Use disposable plates, cups and cutlery

Online Brain Injury Support Groups

Ontario Brain Injury Association Online Concussion Support Group  – A group for people with persistent concussion symptoms. Next session begins January 14 and 15th.

Pink Concussions – Has support groups for women living with ABI, including young women, caregivers, women in the military and a Canadian group.


‘Mind Yourself with Alison’ is a collection of self-help tips, research, and personal experiences dedicated to helping people thrive after brain injury (or other health problems). Check out Alison’s other BIST Blog articles Women and Brain Injury: What you need to know and How to be a Good Friend to a Survivor. You can follow her on Twitter, HERE.