written by chris cannida, 2015
The appointment book for my private practice is starting to fill up – for one reason. The holiday season begins. Triggered for many are painful memories and unfulfilled wishes for bonding and companionship. When I went to the search engine and typed “coping with the holidays” the number of hits that surfaced was 315,000,000. Over 300 million hits for coping. 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. Yet many people will cower in the darkness of an emotional corner before reaching out for support.
This highlights one of the primary stresses we face – feeling isolated.
No one is actually so alone in feeling depressed, angry, and generally stressed during this time of year. Yet, because there is stigma attached to having these feelings, the canvas of our emotions is painted with a large coat of shame. Shame is isolating. The messages we receive from the media or well-intentioned friends, can add to that shame by making us feel less than because we aren’t filled with joy and holiday spirit. It causes us to ask “What’s wrong with me?” If life has unfolded into us having no family or friends to offer words of encouragement, that loneliness compounds our belief that we are inherently bad.
So, the first step in coping is to battle against the idea that no one else would understand how you feel. It’s not true. Brene’ Brown reminds us that shame cannot survive empathy. Disclosure can decrease shame. You are definitely not alone. Even making the simple comment “this time of year is always a bit rough for me” may bring words of empathy from others.
Although the following list of other ways to cope with holiday stress is not extensive, it includes tips that people have reported to me as helpful. I use most of them myself, whether during the holidays or year-round. I’m hoping you find them useful. And I wish you a shame-free holiday.
* Talk to someone. It helps. The “chemistry” of our emotions must finish itself once started, and somehow find release. We are chemical beings and there are specific chemical reactions that occur in the creation of our thoughts and emotions. Once we begin a chain of thoughts that then lead to negative emotions, that chain reaction will run its course to an end. How you cope along the way does determine 1) if the chain will be long and seemingly unending, and 2) if the end of that chain is devastating and destructive or if, somehow, a light for hope and new beginnings exists. Who you talk to can make a difference. If you find yourself with no one earning your trust right now, choose a professional, like a counselor. If you’re employed and have health insurance, see if your plan offers employee assistance programs where some of your counseling sessions would be free. If money is an issue in seeking professional support, perhaps you can find a church and talk to a clergyman. Pastors, preachers, priests, and chaplains – they’ll listen. Some are quite gifted in caring for the human spirit. If the idea of donning a church step doesn’t fit you, there may be a hospital in your area offering support groups or classes this time of year.
Most importantly, if your shame has convinced you that you’re not worth the moments it takes someone to care for you, freeze right now, while reading this, yell STOP and read these next words with the intent to believe them – it’s just not true.
Even if the dark cloud of shame has covered up any self-worth, let someone help you clear the sky of your thoughts so you can realize your worth.
* Do something. Anything, really. I’ve discovered that when I feel a lack of worth or purpose, my purpose can be found in doing even the smallest act. Like now, writing this blog and trying to help someone with my own experience. Even if I never know it’s actually helped, for the minutes it takes to write it down, I’m lifted out of a darker state of mind. Volunteering in the community, calling to check on a friend – anything to lift yourself out of these moments that weigh you down. Even if the “something” that you do is just for yourself (cleaning that long-neglected closet, reading a book), that behavior can change the course of your entire day.
Sometimes our purpose is to be there for ourselves.
It may be hard to believe, but there are times when our most important worth is in saving ourselves. Try not to get caught up in wondering the why of it all. Just be, do, and survive.
* Taking a walk – My own teenage son told me once that he’d discovered how relaxing a long walk can be. He puts on his headphones, walks several miles, and says he can just tune out his stresses by listening to music. Even if remedies or solutions to your stress cannot be easily solved, walking is a way to manage that chemistry churning inside you while you carry the stress over a period of time. Bundle up if it’s cold outside, or hit the local mall and just walk, walk, walk. Slow or fast, doesn’t matter. Think, or don’t think. There is scientific evidence that walking, or any type of exercise, can improve our overall health.
* Random acts of kindness can do amazing things for the human spirit. It doesn’t have to involve money or even lots of time. If the person working the drive-through window at your local coffee shop has a gentle or uplifting tone of voice or pleasant demeanor – absorb that – pay attention to how their own efforts at pleasantness can ease your angst even just a bit and thaw out your frozen soul for that brief moment. And then mention that to them. I periodically offer a heartfelt “thank you” to a clerk in the store if I’m having a rough day – just a simple ‘thank you’ for being kind. It reminds me that it’s possible to find and feel goodness in the midst of all the badness, or madness in the world.
* Prayer – Not your thing? Then, skip this part and move on. But, if it is something you’ve considered in the past, consider it now. Not sure how to pray? Not a worry. It’s easy. Go on that long walk I suggested (or sit comfortably somewhere) – and just quietly talk to God, your Higher Power, that Being to whom you would choose to pray. Ask questions, scream, cry, shake your fist, tell a joke, or even just silently pay attention to your own heartbeat or the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. The power of prayer (or some call it meditation or mindfulness) is in its intention. If it’s your intention to calm yourself by turning inward (or ‘upward’ to a deity), it can have the same beneficial effect.
The kind of stress we feel deep inside, the kind that attacks our sense of well-being, can be temporary and eventually managed with success. If you find yourself angry or even slightly irritated, rather than hopeful, at the idea that you can feel better, this sensation alone can be a sign that it’s time to reach out and ask for support. Until then, it’s okay, even necessary, to practice self-compassion – not only during the holiday season, but all year long.
Give yourself the gift of self-compassion and lose your shame for Christmas this year.
This information is not intended to serve as a substitute for scheduled, face-to-face medical treatment. If you are experiencing thoughts that may create a medical emergency, please seek help from your physician or contact your local emergency room.