Ahhh, the holiday season. So many long for the holidays and the anticipation holds dreams and excitement. However, for others, the holidays do not bring positive emotions and excitement. They can bring stress and unpleasant reminders of the past--even panic and dread about upcoming and overwhelming situations or people. Whatever you feel about the holidays is valid. Emotions can bring up great questions about what we are experiencing, but they do not always bring about the answer we are seeking when we are first experiencing them. Sometimes our nervous system sends strong messages when we are not feeling emotionally safe and our brain might make persuasive stories about these emotions. The stories our brains make follow our emotions.
For those who are filled with positive emotions about the holidays, that is great and wonderful for you! Do not feel guilt or shame that you are enjoying the season or do not have negative emotions rising. Recharge yourself after what may have been a long and difficult 2022 with what sparks joy for you. To best support those who do not have these positive emotions about the holidays, offer space and empathy for them. Perhaps invite a friend or family member who you know is having a hard time to your events to let them know you are thinking of them. On the other hand, offering an out or opportunity to decline like, “We would love to have you at this event and we understand if that is not something you would enjoy.”
To those in recovery from alcohol and substances, embrace what has continued to work for you. If you know that being around alcohol or past triggers is unhelpful, you are completely entitled to make different plans. If a friend or family member pries too much, you are fine to shut that down with a “No thank you” or “I will let you know if I need something.”
For those of you with family that are not emotionally safe for you or have made the holidays a negative experience, your experiences are valid and may be traumatic. Honoring our feelings is so much more helpful than shaming and blaming ourselves for what we feel or think. For example, if you, like me, have responded poorly in a moment of anger, and think a shameful thought like “I am a bad person for doing that” instead of “I made a bad decision” try to be gentle with yourself. Placing this shame on yourself will only slow the healing process. What if you could acknowledge the mistake and move forward the best you can?
If you have experienced trauma that resurfaces during the holidays, extensive research has shown that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an effective treatment. The EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) states, “When distress from a disturbing event remains, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may create an overwhelming feeling of being back in that moment, or of being ‘frozen in time.’ EMDR therapy helps the brain process these memories, and allows normal healing to resume. The experience is still remembered, but the fight, flight, or freeze response from the original event is resolved.” To read more about EMDR be sure to visit EMDRIA’s website.
It is common for those who have experienced trauma to put blame on themselves for things they were not responsible for. Honor where you are in your journey. You do not need to force yourself into an uncomfortable or unsafe situation to accommodate someone else. Sitting alone or with people that make you feel safe over the holidays who are not family is a completely reasonable holiday experience.
Wherever you are in your feelings about the holidays, know that you are not alone. Many people have had a hard and challenging 2022 in one way or another. Honor the hardships you have experienced and reflect on the moments you are grateful for or the lessons you have learned. If you find that a particular day or tradition will be hard, think about the things you could plan or schedule to break that day up. Instead of tackling the entire holiday season in one moment try taking it one hour or minute at a time.
If you are feeling alone, reach out for help and make sure to make time, even if it is five minutes, to do things you know help destress you. My favorite grounding skill has been 5-4-3-2-1, notice:
5 things you see
4 things you can touch
3 things you hear
2 things you smell
1 thing you taste
My clients have also found having a physical object (stress ball, smooth stone, dial of sand, and soft fabric) has helped them to stay in the present. For children specifically, fidget toys may be a great option for a way to process the energy they are experiencing. If a family member or friend takes a break from an event, welcome them back as they return and know that them taking a break is not a negative about your event or you. One thing I recommend to many of my clients is to plan beforehand about how you will respond if you feel triggered and overwhelmed. If you begin to feel overwhelmed maybe see if taking a walk outside for air or listening to some music in another room allows space to recenter. However you choose to experience your holiday season, know that I am here to support you.
May you all have a safe and rejuvenating holiday season.