5 Tips to Build Emotional Resilience When the Holidays Bring Distress

There are many myths in our society about how families and holidays "should" be. Families should love each other. Families should get along. The holidays are fun. But the reality is much more complex. Truthfully, many people do not have loving families, happy families, happy family memories, or happy holidays. As a result, the holidays may trigger depression, anxiety, and even traumatic memories. But there are many things to learn about emotions, including how to work with them, that help us manage better and build emotional resilience.

For example, Christopher grew up in a harsh and joyless household. Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), the kind of emotion and attachment-oriented psychotherapy I practice, helped Christopher heal the anxiety, shame, and depression caused by his childhood trauma. And for the most part, he felt OK... until the month of November rolled around. Like clockwork, his anxiety rose and his mood plummeted. Dread overcame him. He felt heavy in his body with a foreboding sense that something bad would happen. The combination of hating time with his own family, plus knowing his friends looked forward to spending time with their families, made him feel anxious, sad, and lonely.

Alison, as another example, had a great big family that she mostly enjoyed. But she hated her brother’s wife who was always mean to her. Just being in the same room with her sister-in-law triggered Alison's anxiety, a force pushing down her underlying anger. She was dreading the upcoming Christmas dinner at home.

We can drink to numb our feelings, or better yet, deal with holiday emotions in healthier ways. The Change Triangle is the tool I use. Instead of blocking our core emotions, which can lead to anxiety, depression, feeling small, or engaging in self-destructive behaviors, the Change Triangle teaches us how to notice and be with our emotions so we stay connected to our authentic self. It is important for wellbeing to validate our truth, to give ourselves compassion, and to think through how best to get through tough events skillfully.

Christopher needed support and encouragement to let himself be sad. It wasn’t depression, which results from suppressing core emotions like anger and sadness. Chris was experiencing core sadness from a real loss—the loss of the family he had always wanted but never had. Christopher learned to give himself permission to be sad when he felt sad—to not fear his sadness or squash it down, but instead to honor it. When he allowed himself this freedom to feel, he was better able to engage with work and with friends. He didn’t feel as disconnected.

This year Alison learned new emotional strategies to survive her sister-in-law. She would actively work with her emotions in real-time. When she notices anxiety rising, she learned NOT to go up in her head and ruminate on her thoughts. Instead, she tunes into her body to compassionately notice the anxiety, which she feels as a trembling in her chest. She takes deep belly breaths to calm her anxiety as she works to name and validate the underlying core emotions. Sadness and anger are the major ones.

Alison also learned NOT to judge her emotions. Instead, she accepts them as information. Working with one emotion at a time, she tunes in to how the emotion feels physically and stays with the sensations until an impulse manifests. For example, in one session she noticed the sadness in her body marked by a heaviness in her chest and a feeling behind her eyes that told her she needed to cry. She let herself cry. She accepted her sadness and gave herself compassion. She also noticed anger. Lots of anger. So much anger that she labeled it as rage.