Updated: May 9
The Christmas and New Year break can be a wonderful time for many of us, a time to reconnect with family and friends, enjoy time off, look forward to some solid rest, good times, and a chance to reflect on our past year whilst setting goals for a fresh new one.
But this period can also be stressful, irritating, overwhelming and sad. For a lot of us Christmas brings up strong feelings of grief and painful memories of people we have lost that meant the world to us. Being around family can also naturally cause us unexplained feelings of anxiety, anger, sadness, loneliness and overwhelm.
No matter how successful, seemingly grown up, amazing at parenting, or incredibly knowledgeable partners we are, being around family is invariably going to bring up uncomfortable feelings. Families can tend to snap back to original dynamics when they get together so it feels like all that expertise goes out the window and we are all just kids hanging around and reacting to our parents again. Which means we can easily get "triggered".
Being triggered means feeling a sometimes stronger-than-usual emotion like anger or anxiety because in the past something similar to the event happening to you now, happened a number of times. For example, when Amanda was little, her dog bit her on a few different occasions which caused her a lot of distress. And now, 30 years later at Christmas lunch her parents' new dog circling her ankles is causing Amanda to feel pretty anxious, and reaching for a second Champagne just that little bit too soon.
So, to help manage triggers, painful thoughts, feelings, and memories, and to enhance the likelihood of good times in general throughout the Christmas and New Year break, we have put together a brief "Christmas Toolkit".
To promote your psychological wellbeing and emotional wellness during the holidays, try any one or a combination of the below.
RELAX: TWO TECHNIQUES
When feeling anything, especially negative feelings, such as anger toward an old aunt who has asked you yet again why you aren't yet married or still without your second child, a good way to manage emotions while we wait them out is to take some very big deep belly breaths. As in breaths like a baby. Or do some muscle relaxation.
Deep Breathing: Try 5-10 of these. Start with breathing in for 4 counts but breathe in from your belly so it expands, hold your breath for 2 counts, and breathe out slowly for 5 counts until your belly deflates. That is called diaphragmatic breathing and can help very much to reset, or ride out strong emotions as they slowly pass on their own.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This takes a little longer, and is about tensing and relaxing all your major muscle groups. Start by sitting with both feet firmly on the ground, back straight. Extend both your legs out straight in front of you, and try to pull your toes up to your knees, stretching the calves. Hold for 5 seconds. Release.
Now place your legs back as they were, and squeeze both your legs together as hard as you can, feel still planted on the floor. Hold for 5 seconds. Release. Nice.
Now arch your back as far out as you can. Hold for 5. Release. Extend both arms out in front of you and stretch as hard as you can for 3 seconds, reach your fingers as far out in front of you as well. Now make a fist and hold for 3 more seconds. Release. Squeeze your shoulders together up to your neck, hold for 5. Release.
Now scrunch up your face muscles and close your eyes as tightly as possible, yes you will look a little silly but that's ok. Hold for 5. Release. Now tilt your head back and look at the ceiling, hold for 5. Release. Tilt your head to the left, hold for 5. Release. And then to the right, for 5, and release.
Relaxing isn't it? Who even remembers that aunt!
DROP THAT STRUGGLE
Try to shift out of telling yourself "I should be happy this entire time, it's the holidays!", and more into "I will be feeling happy, sad, anxious, angry, annoyed, overwhelmed and excited at different moments of every day, and all of that is ok".
When we "drop the struggle" with painful thoughts, feelings, and memories using mindfulness and curiosity, we give ourselves a lot more freedom to move around and be present in the moment. Watch this video by Dr Russ Harris for an animated explanation of what this means. It just so happens to be one of the main points of understanding reached throughout the course of therapy for most of our clients.
Give yourself space to cry if you're feeling sad or remembering lost loved ones, endings are so hard to cope with and Christmas is a time where intense feelings of sadness show up to remind us we are human beings who love, care, and feel deeply when we lose those that were here with us during Christmases in the past. It is much easier to acknowledge and wait out the feelings with curiosity and compassion to ourselves, rather than spend all day trying to distract or control them with too many Christmas drinks and making a fool out of ourselves in front of the family.
Same goes for anger and any other emotion. Acknowledge you feel angry, take a break using assertiveness below, do some deep breathing, write down your thoughts and feelings then get back to your family and the day when you're ready. Everyone will wait for you, and will probably be more likely to forget that you took a self-care break than the angry outburst you had at your uncle because you bottled up your anger all day and then exploded anyway.
Letting go of painful feelings is much easier when we are mindful to them. That means acknowledging and accepting our emotions, thoughts and memories without judgement, or attempts to control or get rid of these experiences.
Acknowledge how you're feeling in the moment, and validate yourself, then notice 5 things you can see, 2 things you can hear, 2 things you can feel, and a thought you're having. That'll help get some distance from the trigger, memory, or painful feeling for a moment.
For example "I am feeling very stressed and overwhelmed in this moment and that's totally understandable. I can see a Christmas tree, the sky, my grandma's whispy white hair, the chair, and my presents. I can hear my parents laughing, and the cars outside. I can feel my dress on my skin, and the weight of my body in my chair. I am having the thought that this Christmas is stressful and it has been a tough year".
Alternatively, noticing one or two things you actually like about a person you don't like but are obligated to talk to, like their outfit or the colour of their eyes, can help get some distance from the unpleasant experience. Notice the way their mouth is moving as they are saying something that is really upsetting you. The colour of their hair. Or recall in the moment that they are leaving shortly.
ASSERTIVENESS & Boundaries
This is probably the hardest thing to do if it doesn't come naturally to you, and close relationships like family and partners are the toughest place to do it.
A reminder that assertiveness means you have the right to express your needs, what you think and how you feel. Simply because you are a human being. When we keep quiet about what we want, or overpower others with what we need, it increases stress big time and builds resentment.
Where you want to be is freely able to say “I want to take a break from Christmas lunch for 20 minutes” while your parent or partner says “I want you to stay with the family”, and then you compromise from there.
So you say "I know, but I am feeling very overwhelmed and I'd like some space, I will be back in 10-15 minutes is that ok?" and your partner says "Ok, try to make it 5-10 if you can".
Sometimes it just doesn't work out like that. So that's when you can engage what we call the "Broken Record" technique. Basically just repeat what you said like a broken record, and as many times as you have to in a calm, neutral tone whilst perhaps taking some big belly breaths as this can be very triggering and stressful.
So if your partner says "I don't care how you feel it's Christmas lunch and everyone has to sit here", you say "I know, but I am feeling very overwhelmed and I'd like some space, I will be back in 10-15 minutes is that ok?". And your partner says "I said I don't care, it is rude you can take a break later" and you say "I know, but I am feeling very overwhelmed and I'd like some space, I will be back in 10-15 minutes is that ok?". And after 5 times there really isn't much further to go.
No-one has the right to tell you what you want, need or think. Not even your parents. You are the best judge of you and it is important to remind yourself of that.
What do you absolutely love doing? Spend some time really remembering those things, and plan them into your break.
For example, James absolutely loves hockey skating, and surfing, beers with his mates, and building forts for his kids. James has spent most of his year working long hours, in lockdown managing working from home, his two young sons, and his wife who he adores and likes to put effort into. James feels exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmed by the idea of being with family for a month over Christmas.
He remembers that he needs to put himself first too, and schedules into his iCalendar a date with his wife at the ice rink for some skating after Boxing Day, he calls his friends and arranges a day where they can go to the pub for beers and asks his parents to look after their kids. James then schedules in a morning surf every few days for the month checking in with his wife that it works for the family, and sets aside two days straight of fort building and a trip to Bunnings in the New Year with his sons. Who become incredibly excited about it.
After doing this, James finds himself feeling much less overwhelmed, and suddenly looking forward to his month off over Christmas.
It's easy to forget to schedule in what we love. But we all deserve this after a very difficult 2020. Include your family where you can, and try to assert yourself and compromise as much as possible.
Remember to be kind to yourself like you would to a friend that is struggling. Suffering, pain and disappointment are an integral part of being human. We forget that we are not alone in our suffering. And that at any point in time there are hundreds of thousands of us also feeling the same way all over the world, but perhaps about slightly different things.
There are three steps to self-compassion:
Acknowledge you're having a hard time, in pain, or suffering e.g. "I am having a pretty hard time in this moment"
Recall that suffering is part of being human and that you're not alone e.g. "There are probably 100,000 people or more feeling the same way as me right now all over the world"
And say something kind to yourself, such as "of course I am struggling, I'm going to give myself the time and space I need to feel this pain. I could really use a hug"
REFLECT: THEN SET SOME GOALS
Review and reflect on the year that has passed. If you have the energy. Otherwise, save it for January in the new year. It is completely understandable if you, like most of the world, are feeling spent, over it, and just want to have fun and rest for now.
When you do decide to start, consider:
How did you start the year?
What did you hope for and what goals did you set out to achieve?
Did you achieve them?
What stopped you if you didn't?
What mistakes did you make?
How did you learn and grow from them?
What has changed over the course of the year?
How have you changed over the course of the year?
Write this in a journal, type or handwrite. And see what new goals and directions you'd like to steer yourself in for the new year.
What would you like to achieve by the end of 2021?
How will you make this possible?
Where would you like to be in the next 3-5 years in life?
What can you start next year that will get you there, realistically?
Setting realistic short, medium and long term goals especially in writing and taking the time to really consider how to make these possible and get ourselves there, can align us, give us purpose and be a guiding compass for us moving forward in life.
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