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Many people have ideas about what the holidays spent with your family “should” be like. You’d expect your family members to love each other and be thankful for the time they get to spend together. Sadly, the reality for some families is much more complex. The truth is that many people do not have loving, happy families, nor do they have happy holiday memories. Because of this, the holidays may trigger depression, anxiety, and even traumatic memories. An important thing to remember, however, is that there are ways we can better cope with our emotions. Building emotional resilience can be exactly what we need to power through the holidays.

Coping with Difficult Emotions with the Change Triangle

As a child, Christopher lived in a hard and pretty much joyless home. Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), a type of emotion and attachment-oriented psychotherapy I practice, helped Christopher ease his anxiety, shame, and depression resulting from his traumatic childhood. For 10 months of the year, Christopher felt pretty good. It wasn’t until November came around that his anxiety rose, and his mood went downhill. He dreaded the holidays. The combination of hating time with his own family, as well as knowing his friends looked forward to spending time with their families, made him feel anxious, sad, and lonely. 

Alison’s family is huge, and she loved them, for the most part. Unfortunately, her brother’s wife was always mean to her. She really hated to even be in the same room as her. Alison’s sister-in-law triggered her anxiety and forced her to push down anger. Because of her sister-in-law she was dreading Christmas dinner at home.

Some choose to drink to numb their feelings, but there are much healthier ways to deal with holiday emotions. The tool I use is the change triangle. Rather than blocking our core emotions, that can lead to mental health issues, the Change Triangle helps us notice our emotions and stay connected to our authentic self. It is important for our wellbeing to validate our truth, to give ourselves compassion, and to think about the best way to get through tough events skillfully. 

Christopher needed to know that it was OK to let himself feel sad. Chris wasn’t suffering from depression, rather he was experiencing core sadness from a real loss of the family he always wanted but didn’t have. It was important for Christopher to learn that it was OK to be sad when he felt sad. When Christopher allowed himself the freedom to feel, he was better able to engage with work and with friends. 

Prior to the holiday season this year, Alison learned new emotional strategies to survive her sister-in-law. This year, she plans to actively work with her emotions. When she notices anxiety coming on, she takes deep belly breaths to ease the anxious feeling and validate the underlying core emotions – for her sadness and anger are the main ones. 

Rather than judging her emotions, she accepts them. Now she works with one emotion at a time and listens to how it makes her body physically feel. She noticed her sadness was marked by a heaviness in her chest and an urge to cry. So, she cried. Alison accepted her sadness and allowed herself compassion. She also felt so much anger she categorized it as rage.

While in therapy, Alison worked on feeling comfortable with the anger she felt. She noticed that when enraged with anger, her energy would elevate, she felt an urge to hit things, and her body would heat up. A major goal of AEDP therapy is to get the energy of our emotions up and out so they don’t get stuck inside of us causing mental health issues. In order to release her impulses, she uses her imagination. Validating underlying anger each time anxiety rises helps to calm the mind and body–it’s how emotions work. It doesn’t make the feelings go away, but it will help Alison get through the day and be more present.

Tips to Get You Through a Difficult Holiday Occasion

Here are 5 tips to help get through a difficult holiday occasion: 

  1. Don’t avoid your emotions—validate them. 
  2. Give yourself compassion. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Blaming yourself can be harmful to your mental health. Talk to yourself in the same way you would a child or your best friend.
  3. The way you feel is temporary, even if it seems like forever.
  4. You aren’t a kid anymore, and you have the ability to use words to advocate for yourself. Set limits and boundaries where you need to, and do not let someone else treat you poorly. You CAN leave an abusive situation.
  5. Take a different approach. Sometimes, we get stuck in roles in our families. It’s always good to try something new! I suggested to Alison, maybe she should take the high road and compliment her sister-in-law on her earrings, outfit, shoes, etc. to take back some control. “Kill them with kindness,” as they say. Say it doesn’t work, that’s ok! Take pride in knowing that you stepped outside of your norm and tried something new. 

If the holidays are hard for you, you’re not alone. Something I’ve learned throughout my life is that the holiday season brings about a whole host of emotions in all of us. In the words of Harry Stack Sullivan, “Everyone is much more simply human than otherwise, be happy and successful, contented and detached, miserable and mentally disordered, or whatever.” And that applies to the holidays… especially!

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