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Surviving Painful Holiday Emotions

-Originally published on NAMI.org’s blog

There are many “shoulds” about how families and holidays should be. For example, families should love each other, families should get along, and the holidays should be fun. Reality, however, is often more complicated ... and hard. The facts are that many people do not have happy families, happy family memories or happy holidays.


Holidays and families can easily trigger us into states of anxiety, shame and misery. Perhaps your parent or child is mean to you, or you deeply miss loved ones that have died or been lost due to divorce, or you have an active alcoholic relative that makes everyone tense, or you have endured abuse or neglect and the holidays trigger you into a depressed mood, or you feel lonely even though people — even people you love — are all around you. These kinds of experiences are common and can make the holidays challenging.

We can avoid, bury, or numb our painful feelings to get through. Or we can deal with holiday misery in new-found ways that serve our well-being and mental health in both the short and long-term.

HOW TO COPE WITH NEGATIVE HOLIDAY EMOTIONS

The Change Triangle is the guide I use to help my clients work with emotions and the ways we avoid them. To “work the triangle” the steps include:

  • Identifying what you are experiencing

  • Pausing to breathe and calm yourself

  • Naming the core emotions you are feeling in that moment

  • Listening (without judgement) to what your emotions are telling you

  • Thinking through how to move forward

Instead of suppressing core emotions, like anger and sadness, which when invalidated worsen anxiety and depression, the Change Triangle shows us how to identify and be with our emotions so we stay connected to ourselves.


Christopher Christopher spent years in a harsh and joyless household. Therapy and good choices helped a lot, and he led a satisfying life — until November rolled around. Then, like clockwork, his anxiety rose and his mood plummeted. Seeing his friends and colleagues happy and excited about the holidays made him feel worse. The holidays triggered pain from childhood disappointment.

Chris was appropriately sad from a real loss — the loss of the family he had always wanted but never had. Christopher needed support and encouragement to feel the sadness that naturally arises from losses. Anxiety diminishes when people experience their feelings instead of squashing them down. By working the Change Triangle, Christopher began to honor his sadness instead of fearing and avoiding it. When he allowed himself to feel sad and even cry, he found relief. Taking it one day at a time, he got through the holiday season by honoring his feelings, being kind and compassionate to his pain, and reminding himself the holidays would soon be over and his mood would improve.

Alison Alison was close with most of her family members. But she hated her brother’s wife who was mean to her. Just the prospect of being in the same room with this sister-in-law filled Alison with dread.

Alison used the Change Triangle to develop new strategies to survive being around her sister-in-law. She actively worked with her emotions in real time. For example, when she noticed herself feeling anxious, she would turn compassionate attention to the anxious sensations in her chest while taking deep belly breaths. She also strived to name and validate the underlying core emotions of sadness, anger and fear. She didn’t judge her emotions because she knew “emotions just are” — they happen automatically. For example, Alison named and validated the underlying anger each time her anxiety rose by simply saying to herself, “I am angry and that makes sense since my sister-in-law is mean.” Just saying that simple phrase helped calm her. It didn’t make the anger go away, but it did help her feel less anxious in the moment.

If her anger was particularly big, Alison excused herself to get some privacy. Then, she worked to release some of the energy in her body that anger naturally causes by writing down what she wished she could say to her sister-in-law. The goal was to get through the day without unhealthy numbing or creating a scene.

Here are five suggestions to help you get through the holidays:

  1. Don’t avoid your emotions. Instead identify and validate them. Print out the Change Triangle here and refer to it as a guide.

  2. Give yourself compassion. Notice if you are being hard on yourself or blaming yourself and instead be compassionate to your suffering. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend. Or, try this gentle exercise.

  3. Remind yourself that emotions are temporary (even though they may feel like they could last forever). Here are some mantras to reassure you.

  4. Remember to kindly, yet firmly, set limits and boundaries. Don’t let yourself be abused. We can all learn to do this even though it is never easy. You can say for example, “If you continue to criticize me, I will have to leave.”

  5. Try new approaches. Family members often get stuck in roles. For example, I suggested to Alison that she try an experiment to win her sister-in-law over. I suggested she walk right up to her, look her in the eyes, and find something to compliment her on like her hair, earrings, outfit, shoes, etc. By taking the high road, you get back some control. If that doesn't work, in moments of conflict, saying, "We just have to agree to disagree," can end a conflict neutrally.

Finally, if the holidays are hard for you, know that you are not alone. For all of us, the holidays bring forth a generous mix of emotions. However, it’s not whether we have emotions that determines our fate, it’s how we make use of them.

Armed with a general understanding of emotions, a willingness to work with them, and the courage to try something new, we can cope with our negative holiday emotions in new and healthy ways.


Video Resources:

Full presentation on the Change Triangle

Getting in Touch with Sadness & Letting it Process Through

A Gentle Exercise for Anxiety Relief

Self-Parenting Your Emotions and Distress

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