The holidays can be a special and memorable time of year for many, filled with laughter, gift-giving, words of affirmation and connection. But it can also be filled with tension, anxiety, and disappointment for those struggling with challenging relationships with family members. Many people have strained family relationships, or possibly even unresolved traumas from childhood that make family interactions difficult. This can bring about triggers when interacting with these family members, and with triggers come efforts (either consciously or unconsciously) to cope with these triggers.
Some examples of unhealthy coping include defensive arguments, alcohol or other substance use, binge eating or restriction. These are coping skills that might numb us in the moment, but cause long term suffering or bring us further from a place of peace and happiness. We all have our ways of coping with stress, and sometimes we are aware of these coping skills, but sometimes we are not. Coping is how we deal with challenging or difficult situations in our life. Sometimes the anticipatory anxiety around family gatherings can be so great, that we are engaging in coping behaviors for weeks leading up to a family gathering.
It is important to become aware of the coping mechanisms that you use in the face of family conflict before you are faced with that family conflict. You cannot reduce the maladaptive, or unhealthy, coping mechanism until you know what it is. And you cannot take away one coping skill without replacing it with another one, so it is important to replace the maladaptive coping mechanism with a coping mechanism that meets your underlying needs associated with the trigger.
Thinking about patterns of behavior in family members, what is expected of your next family gathering? Is it an uncle who always brings up politics? An aunt who always comments on your appearance or the food on your plate? A cousin who perpetrated abuse upon you as a child? Or a sibling who instigates an argument about even the most arbitrary topics? Regardless of what the triggering statement might be, it is important to explore the underlying need you have associated with the trigger. Perhaps you need to feel heard, to feel safe, to feel respected, to feel autonomous, to feel loved. Maybe it is to feel numb to the emotional pain you experience. Every person has needs, and when these needs are not met, we feel the need to use coping mechanisms to meet those underlying needs.
When you consider the need(s) you have in the moment of the trigger, it is important to match the coping mechanism to your need. Here are some ideas for healthy coping to deal with triggers around the holidays:
- Before the event, journal about your thoughts and feelings about the family gathering. Process your feelings about the person you are anxious about interacting with. Write about situations where you felt triggered in the past and how you dealt with it. Write about the triggers you may face at this event and write about the ways you might be able to cope with it in the moment.
- Write a no-send letter to that person (and do not send it – you can be more unfiltered in your writing if you know that no one else will read it). Meditate on your unresolved feelings towards that person after writing the letter, and consider burning the letter safely in a fireplace, or dissolving it into a bowl of water, or ripping it into tiny pieces.
- Enlist a support system for yourself for this gathering before it happens. Perhaps it is a family member who will be at the event that you feel safe sharing your feelings with. If there is no one at this event who you feel comfortable speaking to about this, perhaps enlist a friend that you can call or text if you need to during the time of the gathering to feel supported if something happens.
- Consider setting healthy boundaries at the time of the trigger if it is safe for you to do so. This can be as simple as saying “I would rather not talk about this subject,” or “Please do not comment on ____,” or changing the subject entirely.
- Write positive affirmations or statements to yourself before the event, and put them in a place you can access them when you need to, such as your pocket, your wallet, your phone case, or in your car. Match this affirmation with the need you have associated with the trigger, such as “I am enough,” “I can do hard things,” “I release all expectations placed upon me,” “I can stay calm in the face of adversity.”
- Excuse yourself for a step outside to take a few deep breaths or take a short walk around your block to clear your thoughts before returning to the conversation. When taking deep breaths, breathe in from your nose or your mouth to the center of your body, and try to count your inhale breath and your exhale breath. Try to make each breath longer with every inhale and exhale.
- Set up a support network for yourself after the family gathering. Maybe this includes calling a friend on your drive home (hands free, if you are the one driving), journaling about your feelings when you get home, or engaging in a healthy form of escape such as reading, gaming or watching a movie/show to take your mind off of things.
– Alejandra Rose, LMFT
For many, the holidays are filled with connection, joy, and happy memories. But this is, unfortunately, not always the case for everybody. The holidays can also be a stressful time of year due to financial strain, social pressures, personal expectations, and triggers. The several week period after the holidays can leave you feeling drained, exhausted, and depressed. This year has been especially stressful with the pandemic impacting the ability to connect on a deeper level with loved ones. You may even feel guilty for feeling this way after taking time off work or school for the holidays. This may lead to holding the expectation that you return to work or school with a fresh mindset and a burst of energy, ready to get back to the rat races. However, the holidays can add to our stress levels rather than help us decompress.
There are a lot of contributing factors to this experience, and this will vary person to person. Perhaps you had to see a family member who reminds you of a traumatic experience. Perhaps someone made inappropriate comments about your body or food intake at a family gathering. Perhaps you just lost a loved one. Perhaps you feel pressure due to all the pervasive diet talk that comes up during this time of year. It could be shorter days impacting seasonal depression. It could be a variety of different triggers impacting your mental health.
Whichever trigger resonates with your experience, it is important to be proactive about coping skills to support yourself through this trying time. To match your coping skill to your needs, it will be helpful to identify the trigger to the “post-holiday blues” you are experiencing.
Here are some suggestions for identifying your needs:
- Practice curiosity without judgement when considering what you are needing, feeling, and thinking
- Express your emotions through an expressive medium such as writing or art or music
- Call a close friend or loved one on the phone to process your emotions and gain clarity with support
- Schedule an appointment with your therapist or consider beginning therapy to gain deeper insight
Here are some suggestions for coping with “post-holiday blues:”
- Journal about your favorite memories from this holiday or any holiday
- Write a letter to someone who you shared a positive experience with this holiday or any holiday
- Journal about intentions that you would like to set for yourself for this week, this month, this year
- Do not get hung up on “resolutions” that focus on changing yourself to become “___ enough” (fill in the blank for whichever insecurity resonates with your experience) but work on accepting yourself for who you are, speaking words of kindness to and about yourself and others, and living mindfully in the moment
- Set healthy boundaries in relationships with others by redirecting diet talk, self-deprecating comments, or judgements on self or others. Redirect yourself when you notice that you are participating in this.
- Identify what your top values are and set up an action plan for living in line with your values
- Schedule regular video chat or phone call times with people that you want to connect with
- Limit and be intentional about your social media use to ensure that you are not getting sucked into a “grass is greener” mentality by comparing yourself to others online
And most importantly give yourself grace, compassion, self-care, and a break. Work on validating for yourself that it is okay to take a break to rest and recharge after an emotionally exhausting experience, and the holidays count as one of those experiences. You deserve to receive support from yourself most of all when you are going through depression of any sort and too often, we beat ourselves up for feeling “down,” “blue,” or depressed. It is not your fault that you are feeling this way, and if you need extra support, know that it is healthy and appropriate to seek the support of a professional to sort out what you are going through.
– Alejandra Rose, LMFT
When we are faced with a “bad day,” it can be hard to cope with it. Perhaps the day started with waking up late or accidentally hitting snooze on every alarm you set, the hot water being shut off in your building while there is still shampoo in your hair, forgetting your backpack on the dining room table only to realize it halfway to work or school, someone cutting you off on the freeway, a negative interaction with a peer or colleague, conflict with a superior at work or teacher at school, or an argument with your spouse. Maybe it was some serious news like a new health diagnosis. Days like these can trigger underlying symptoms such as depression, hopelessness, anxiety, restlessness, or intrusive thoughts. When we have a day like this, it can be hard to access healthy coping skills.
Here are some remedies for a bad day:
- Call a friend or family member to talk about it. It can be so powerful to open up to another person and give that person the gift of your trust. Make a list of three people you feel safe and comfortable opening up to and keep that list handy on a day you need it. Chances are, this might even bring you closer to this person.
- Take some time to read for pleasure. Pick up a novel of a genre that is interesting to you. Maybe there are already a few books on your bookshelf you have been meaning to get around to. We read emails, we read blogs and posts and tweets, and we might even read bedtime stories to little ones. But there is something extra special about reading a storybook that is picked out for you and reading for pleasure by choice. This is a comforting and healthy form of escape from the problems of every day.
- Pick a TV show that can be your “comfort show.” This can be something you have already watched multiple times. Maybe it is a show that’s from your childhood or makes you feel nostalgic. Pick a show that feels comforting, one that you know will always have a happy ending. When our lives are filled with chaos, we need something that feels safe and predictable. Switching on the news can be a great way to stay in touch but might be adding more stress to your day than relieving it.
- Be sure to take good care of yourself by eating on a regular schedule, even if depression has been making your appetite decrease. Your body needs fuel to keep going and you deserve to nourish your body.
- Set up your space to be comforting to the five senses. Prepare a food item that is pleasing to your sensation of taste. Light candles or diffuse essential oils to please your sensation of smell. Sit on soft blankets, prop yourself up with fluffy pillows, hug a stuffed animal (also a great way to connect to your inner child!), wear soft clothing to please your sensation of touch. Listen to calming music such as classical piano music, lo fi, or soothing melodies to please your sensation of hearing. Look at comforting photos such as photos of a trip you took in the past, or of people that you love, or of animals to please your sensation of sight.
- Write your feelings in your journal, such as what happened throughout the day, how you felt emotionally as well as what sensations you noticed in your body, what thoughts came into your mind, and what your needs are. Consider writing a No-Send letter to someone that you are having unresolved feelings towards.
- Give back in some way that feels meaningful to you. If you have the financial means, contribute to a charity that resonates with your values. Consider making a donation in honor of Black History Month (you can find a resource on where you can give back here: https://www.charities.org/news/celebrating-agents-change-black-history-month ). If you are unable to contribute financially, look online to see if there are assisted living or skills nursing facilities in your area that are accepting holiday themed mail for residents who are needing connection.
- Engage in a joyful movement practice that feels healing in your body, such as free form dancing, a gentle walk or a calming yin yoga sequence and intentionally release the tension in your body that you might have been holding in from difficult interactions during the day. Try to avoid exercise routines that make you feel “pushed to the limit” or punished in any way.
- Write a gratitude list: of things you are grateful for that happened today, this week, this month, this year. Be sure to be specific, do not just list things like “the sky, music and my bed,” but be specific such as “the sky because when I look at the sky I am reminded how I can find something beautiful in each day,” “music because when I listen to the right song when I feel a certain way, I do not feel so alone and that makes me feel better,” and “my bed because after a long day of holding tension I can finally relax and let go as I let the blankets comfort me.”
Remind yourself that this pain is only temporary. Validate for yourself that you are human, no one is perfect, and we are all allowed to have tough days. But also remind yourself that you are strong, courageous, resilient, and worthy feeling your feelings. You may be healing from a painful experience, and it is important to allow yourself to process your feelings, but these will