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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.

In therapy, Alison practiced getting comfortable with her anger by staying with the sensations anger created in her body. She noticed the energy pushing up and that her body heats up. She noticed an impulse to punch. One goal of AEDP therapy is to get the energy of our emotions up and out so they don’t stay stuck and make us anxious and depressed. Alison used her imagination to release the impulses. Her anger wanted to punch her sister-in-law in the face and yell, "Get out of my brother’s life!" Permission to have the rageful fantasy gave Alison visceral relief and calmed her anxiety. 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.

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

  1. Don’t avoid your emotions. Instead, validate them. Work the Change Triangle!

2. Give yourself compassion. Notice if you are being hard on yourself or blaming yourself. Instead, be compassionate to your suffering--even if that suffering is caused by triggered anger. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend or a child.

3. Remember that what you feel is temporary, even though it may feel like forever.

4. Remember you are not a kid anymore when your brain didn’t have the ability to use words to advocate for yourself. Now you can. It's important to set limits and boundaries! Don’t let yourself be treated badly. Say “no” or “please don’t speak to me that way,” for example. You can leave an abusive situation.

5. Try a new approach. Family members often get stuck in roles. Try something new. For example, I suggested to Alison (after we validated and processed her anger with fantasy) that she try winning her sister-in-law over by walking right up to her, looking her in the eyes, and finding something on which to compliment her: her earrings, outfit, shoes, etc. By taking the high road, you get back some control. “Kill them with kindness,” as they say. If the new approach doesn’t work, it’s ok. Be proud of yourself for trying something new and /or taking the high road.

If the holidays are hard for you, know that you are not alone. My experience has taught me that for all of us, the holiday season brings forth a generous cocktail of core emotions: sadness, anger, fear, disgust, excitement, and joy. 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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