6 Tips for Managing Difficult Emotions During the Holidays

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There is no shortage of information written about coping with the holiday season.  That’s because there’s no shortage of people feeling extra stress this time of year. Many people will cower in the darkness of an emotional corner before reaching out for support. In the midst of increasing emotional strain, we tend to curl up and try to endure rather than move with intention toward behaviors that provide at least some level of comfort. That’s not to say endurance is not worthy of merit. Resilience is a definite plus – one that we can build and strengthen with intention.

In the midst of a first global pandemic for our generation the stressors are magnified as options for coping have never-before-experienced limits. For the first time in collective society every single person on the planet is going through a similar stress (avoiding COVID19) at the same time. That’s why it’s as vital as ever that we give attention to how we approach this holiday season. While following all the tips on the Internet won’t guarantee stress-free experiences, there are simple ways to manage the more distressing emotions that might come up. Consider these 6 steps for managing holiday stress, whether tapping in for your own benefit or for the sake of someone you care about.

1. Eliminate untrue self-talkThe personal narrative we each create can be helpful or hurtful, depending on its content. The most damaging thought-life can convince us to isolate, confirming for us that we are better off alone than in the company of others. With the pandemic reinforcing the need to stay socially distant, the aloneness built into this year’s season, for some, could result in devastating despair that lasts well beyond the holiday calendar. Fortunately, we can change our narratives to be less polarizing if we’re aware of some common pitfalls. Here are some statements we tell ourselves that create isolation:

“No one would understand how I’m feeling”This is simply untrue. There are universal experiences that connect us as human beings. Periods of deep sorrow, loneliness, loss, depression, or anxiety are some, to name a few. While it might be true that your life includes uncaring persons, you can also find a number of people who are gifted to show compassion when you’re in need. Counselors, pastors, and chaplains feel truly called to listen. If you’ve not shared these isolating thoughts and feelings with your family or friends, try that first. You might be surprised to know they’ve been down that road themselves.

“I don’t deserve someone to care about me”This is a ‘shaming’ thought and could be a symptom of clinical depression (although even people not suffering depression are sometimes burdened with shame). It’s also untrue. Shame can isolate people. Connection shrinks shame. Battle that shaming-thought by stopping it in its tracks.

Above all, avoid negative self-talk, especially using absolute words like “never” and “always”. This type of thinking tends to reinforce a belief that our situation is hopeless and can never change. In actuality, taking even the smallest positive steps can foster hope.

2. Find a support group – Many local chapters of mental health associations sponsor support groups for people. Your local hospitals or churches might also offer the same. These days, in order to manage the exposure to COVID19, local or regional chapters of mental health associations are even offering virtual (online) group supports. It can be scary to connect with new people, though research shows group support is an effective way to cope with many life issues!

3. Do something! Starting a new hobby or lifestyle choice can shift our thoughts and build our emotional immune system. A few possibilities include:

  • Reading a new book – low on funds? It’s okay – your local library will let you borrow them for free!
  • Take walks – walking is known to relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and can clear your mind of negativity! Got a park or small forest nearby? Even better! Research shows being around nature has healing power.
  • Learn something new – Whether it’s speaking a new language, learning how to garden or play the piano, learning new things keeps us mentally fit and adds to our overall emotional wellbeing. There are even tutorials you can access through Youtube on your phone or device.

4. Commit random, intentional acts of kindness – Giving of ourselves benefits us just as much as the person we’re giving to! Even a simple gesture of kind words to someone who might be having a bad day can make a difference. Remember to be equally kind to yourself. Being intentionally kind can affirm that we have a positive purpose in this life.

5. Search for the spiritual meaningFor many, the holiday season is a time to reflect on and celebrate valued spiritual beliefs. Some studies show that connecting with one’s spiritual self can bring a sense of peace and help a person find purpose in life. There is evidence that tapping in to one’s spirituality helps to build resilience and overcome the effects of a traumatic event. If you find yourself feeling negative about connecting with spirituality because of a bad experience with religion, consider that spirituality and religion are not the same thing. While religions are particular system of belief created by entities of governing bodies, spirituality is more personal and without the dogma that often leaves people feeling guilty and shamed.

6. Gain perspective – The holiday season is temporary. Its value comes from the meaning we assign to it. For some, it’s a time of spiritual celebration. For others, the focus is on family and friends. For you, it might be a time for reflection and personal growth without getting caught in the trap of commercialized mayhem. You get to decide what the season means to you.

Most importantly, approach this holiday – and every day of the year – with an intention to mitigate psychological pain. Let’s take care of ourselves and each other.

This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you find yourself struggling to manage challenging thoughts or moods during this time of year, contact your primary care physician or seek the support of a licensed mental health professional.

National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

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The Cost of Caring

photo credit: Jonathan Borba on pexels.com

We are all currently grateful for and in awe of the phenomenal work being done by our healthcare professionals. Some of us have personally benefitted from this work when in dire medical need. Yet, what is the cost paid by those professionals? It could be something called compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue.  What is it and who is most at risk for suffering from it?  The American Institute of Stress defines it as “The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events”. It might be unusual to think about the Coronavirus pandemic as a trauma.  We often reserve the word trauma for what a warrior goes through in combat, the devastation left by natural disasters, or a person being abused in some way. There are so many people with the illness who don’t even have symptoms.  But for some, the domino effect of this illness can be traumatic and lead to great tragedy. Not only for the person suffering, but also for the ones who bear witness to that suffering. Today, I’m especially reflecting on the ‘front-line’ workers – or as many are calling themselves – the last line of defense. Doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, First-responders – all of the caregivers watching this devastating illness unfold in our emergency rooms.

When I consider the official definition of compassion fatigue, coupled with the stories I’m hearing from healthcare providers about watching people die alone or consider the desperation those providers must feel in efforts to save lives, I can’t help but consider the ultimate burden they must bear.  Many may already be suffering compassion fatigue and currently all are at risk. Mental healthcare providers are familiar with the term as we frequently spend considerable time caring for people who’ve been traumatized. In fact, any caregiver who’s responsible for the care of others experiencing trauma is at risk for this type of “emotional residue”. 

If you’re suffering compassion fatigue what does that look like? It can take on many forms. It causes you to doubt your effectiveness, make you question your purpose and cause you to withdraw from your own loved ones. It can lead to physical exhaustion. If severe, it can weaken a person’s immune system and show up in your body as joint pain, dizziness and even disorientation. If left unaddressed, it can lead to anxiety or severe depression. It’s quite a ‘catch-22’ for professional caregivers. Many of them entered their vocational field and ‘give care’ out of a strong sense of compassion and empathy for others. Yet that very sense of compassion keeping them so dedicated can cause them great mental, emotional, and even physical harm.  So, what can you do to take care of yourself in the face of compassion fatigue?

The first thing is be aware.  Take time to learn what it looks like and feels like in your body, knowing what it sounds like in your thoughts.  Next, be honest with yourself.  Caregivers sometimes struggle to admit they have limitations.  Their strong sense of devotion makes it hard to think about self-care. Yet, self-care is not just a trendy term we see floating on social media. It’s necessary we all learn to care for our ‘self’. It’s important to take action on that awareness so that the caregiver can continue to honor their dedication to others.

“….self-care is not just a trendy term we see floating on social media.”

Here are 4 things you’ll want to do if you’re in a position that places you at risk for compassion fatigue:

Check in with your body daily.  Does it need rest, water or nutrition?  Perhaps you need exercise to release tension and build stamina?  Even small amounts of exercise or movement daily can yield significant and positive changes both physically and emotionally.

Take a mental break from high expectations.  You likely place those expectations on yourself in the role of care provider in order to do your best for others.  It’s important, however, to remember that everyone has limitations.  It’s just a part of being human. 

Intentionally create a balanced life.  Engage in healthy activities that are solely for your own benefit or enjoyment.  Perhaps start a hobby or connect with others for the purpose of having fun and relaxing. Even learning how to just be, without doing anything at all can yield much needed mental and physical results.

Talk to a trusted person about how you’re feeling.  It’s important to process those self-doubts. Plus, talking with someone can help you stay connected. Spending much of our time caring for others can tend to leave us feeling isolated from others. We might begin to tell ourselves they couldn’t possibly understand what we’re going through. Whether it’s a friend, family member, or therapist, it’s important to tell your story in a trusted space.  Talking through your thoughts and emotions prevents them from bottling up inside which can add to the most harmful consequences of compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is real and anyone suffering its consequences deserves to feel better. While it is the result of doing valuable and noble work, it can result in painful symptoms. Fortunately there are both preventive steps that can be taken and healing can occur in its aftermath. I’m grateful for our healthcare providers and admire anyone who takes on the role of caregiver, hoping they add themselves to the list of people they care about.

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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