The Holiday Season, although considered to be a joyous time, can be extremely stressful for anyone. As a therapist, the holidays are always a topic of conversation between myself and my clients with eating disorders, past traumas, as well as various other mental health concerns. Generally, the Holidays can stir up mental health triggers including confrontations with family members, feelings of physical and emotional isolation from family and/or other loved ones, gatherings centered around food or many food choices, and the intense need to buy the perfect gift or get everything perfect for the holiday season.
This Year has Tested Us as Humans
This year, there are even more stressors during the holiday season. 2020 has really tested us as humans. COVID-19 has led many of my clients to be in a place of isolation and longing for normalcy. As humans, we all long for the connection we once had with our peers, family, or chosen family. Not to mention, COVID-19 and the current trajectory of the spread of the disease, can lead to a lot of anxieties around if one should visit loved ones during the holiday season. Below, I have compiled 10 tips to THRIVE instead of survive during the holiday season while in recovery from an eating disorder, trauma, or other mental health issues.
1.Embrace Your Inner Child and Have Fun
Have you heard of an inner child? Your inner child is aspects of yourself that may be more childlike or aspects of self you enjoyed as a child. I am including embracing your inner child in my list of tips for this year because, when you allow yourself to embrace aspects of yourself that may be more childlike, you can feel a lot of joy. As an adult, you may feel a lot of social pressures during the holidays to do everything the “right way”. Allow yourself to cope with the holiday season by doing things that your inner child enjoys! Think about a holiday tradition, movie, or experience that brought you joy as a child and find a way of bringing this into your life! I have already participated in this myself as I have already decorated my whole house while watching my favorite movies for the holiday season. Allow yourself to embrace these happy experiences despite all the stress that may be going on around you.
2.Create a Chosen Family
You may be someone that does not necessarily have family that you spend time with during the holidays. That is okay! Give yourself permission to choose your own family. Just because your holiday may not be the typical experience seen in movies, you do not have to be lonely. Plan time (even on zoom) with close friends, or even volunteer your time to a cause close to your heart. You can create your own traditions and goals for your holiday season.
One of my favorite skills to teach my clients is self-compassion. Self-compassion is the idea that even in the face of adversity, you can be kind to yourself and recognize that times of stress, anxiety, and suffering are part of the human experience. We all make mistakes. We all cannot do everything right 100% of the time. Self-compassion can be an extremely effective strategy for the holidays during times of stress. When you have made a mistake in the past, think about how you have responded. Where you mean or judgmental towards yourself? Do not worry, you are not alone. Many people tend to criticize themselves in these sorts of situations.
Self-compassion, as a daily practice, can allow you to approach yourself with kindness. Take some time, even now before the holidays, and examine the ways that you criticize and talk to yourself. When we criticize ourselves, we take away from our emotional needs. Instead, ask yourself “What do I need in order to be kind to myself in this moment?”. In addition, there are some other great resources found on Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion website.
4.Utilize Mindfulness Skills
Creating A Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally being in the present moment on purpose. Mindfulness allows us to be in the present moment in a non-judgmental way while being aware of what is happening internally with our own emotions as well as the external world around us. The reason mindfulness can be so helpful and crucial during the holidays is that holidays can be a time of anxiety or even sadness related to any losses or grief we have experienced. Our emotions, although helpful and needed, can sometimes feel as if they have a mind of their own. Maybe you can remember a time that your anxiety or sadness took over in a way that made it difficult to stay present in the world around you. Whenever this may happen during the season, take some time to breathe and focus on your breath. Then, utilize the space around you to create a mindfulness practice.
My favorite mindfulness exercises to recommend are the 5-4-3-2-1 technique and creating a mindful object in the room. The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is an activity when you utilize aspects in the room and your current experience to refocus your attention to the present moment. When you notice that your awareness may have drifted to the past or the future, take 3 deep breathes noticing what your breathing feels like entering and exiting your body. Next, label 5 things you can see around you and describe them to yourself. Second, pick 4 things you can touch around the room and notice the textures as you touch them. Third, find 3 things you can hear and spend some time listening to these sounds. Fourth, pick 2 things you can smell and smell them while describing the scent. Lastly, notice one thing you can taste and describe the taste. You will always have your senses with you during the holidays and can use this at any time with practice!
Refocusing Your Attention
I recommended a mindful object in a room that can be an anchor and reminder to re-ground yourself during family or other gatherings. If you know that you may feel stressed during an experience or an activity, pick an object around the room that feels soothing to you. Each time you see the object use it as an opportunity to refocus your attention to the present moment and check in with your emotional experience!
5.Take an Observational Stance During Tense Gatherings
Alright, so we all have a family member or friend that gets under our skin during the holidays and can leave us stewing in the corner. If you happen to be spending some time with loved ones, whether that be in person or via zoom, you may have had experiences where you have thought about a holiday interaction relentlessly for days! This is the perfect example of how our emotions can take us away from the present moment and make us feel mindless.
Generally, you may even tend to internalize what you believe these interactions mean about you. You may be awfully hard and judgmental towards yourself. If you notice yourself becoming wrapped up in a conversation with a loved one or start feeling bad about yourself, take a step back. Begin to label this individual’s behaviors, tone of voice, emotions, what their reaction may be about, etc. for yourself. This is a way of not only being mindful but also allows you to separate this person’s “stuff” from your internalized experience.
6.Create Your Structure, and Stick with It
Generally, the tendency during the holidays may be to deviate from your structure. Keeping a structure that has worked for you can reduce anxiety and help you feel calmer and confident to tackle the holidays. Try to keep yourself to a similar eating and sleeping schedule (of course there can be some flexibility!). Plan in time for self-care! Many people forget that self-care and self-love allow not only time to respect yourself, but also allows your body to recuperate and tolerate emotions better. In addition to self-care, try to also incorporate a time where you might check in with your emotions, journal, and practice self-compassion and mindfulness. You may feel selfish for scheduling this time for yourself and maybe even guilty in the short term, but in the long term, you will feel more confident approaching stressful situations.
7.Moderation, Moderation, Moderation
It is okay to know your limits! Do not feel like you must do everything! In the face of COVID-19, I am sure you may be invited to a lot of in-person as well as zoom gatherings. If you feel like you need a break, take it. Remember, you can only do so much. If you are not taking care of yourself, you may even feel less connected, feel more on edge, or even have less fun than you would if you set limits. Sometimes you need to “dose” your activities.
Think about moderation in other ways as well, not only just your schedule. Due to heightened emotional reactions to the holiday season, you may be more likely to turn to food, alcohol, or other maladaptive coping mechanisms to feel better. Try to eat a variety of foods and stick to your schedule to avoid maladaptive coping mechanisms. See the Coping plan below for more help!
8.Set Boundaries with Yourself and Others
Do not be afraid to set boundaries with others and yourself during the holiday season. It is okay to tell people no during the Holidays. I promise you are still a good person! Generally, those that allow themselves to have boundaries for themselves and others, tend to feel less shame overall. Spend some time identifying your morals and values and choose behaviors that are in line with your values. If something does not fit in with your values, it is okay to set a boundary in that situation, even if it is with a family member. Some boundaries may look like, “I would prefer not to talk about politics with you”, “I need to eat my lunch in the next hour”, or “I can’t come out tonight, thank you for inviting me”.
9.Create a List of Coping Skills and Supports
Personally, I enjoy helping my clients create their very own plan for how to get through the holidays. When creating your own coping plan first, write down a list of things about the holidays that may affect you emotionally or you have difficulty tolerating. Once you have these triggers, write down for each trigger a coping skill or a few that you can use to help you feel more able to tolerate the situation. Coping skills can range from, mindfulness to self-compassion, to calling a friend, to journaling, to even setting a boundary and walking away. This is another example of knowing your limits during interactions. And do not worry, you can always build on your coping plan even if you do not get it right the first time!
The more time you try to cope in stressful situations, the more you learn about yourself and your needs! Finally, write a list of people you know are in your corner. These are people you can call on if you need to talk through a situation, need to ask for help, or need support. Keep your coping plan with you and reference it when you need it. In addition, create a section writing down more maladaptive coping mechanisms you may have used in the past, which may range from isolation, avoidance, eating disorder behaviors, alcohol, etc. It is helpful to create a “what you need to do section” creating ways that you know help you get back on track once you utilize a behavior that doesn’t align with your values.
10.Understand the Difference between Guilt and Shame
Setting boundaries can be extremely difficult. Therefore, it is important to learn to identify the difference between guilt and shame. This may be something that you are not used to. Generally, when we go back to our families, you may naturally play the same “role” you always have. This can make you feel extremely childish and immature. Quite frankly, you may start to even feel shame for feeling this way around your family or reverting to childlike tendencies. Shame is an innate feeling that something is wrong with you and that you are flawed to the core. You may feel that you are a bad person. This is not necessarily a productive emotion to feel.
Take some time, to identify the role you tend to play in your family and set boundaries around this role. For instance, if you know that you tend to always speak the last in your family, try to speak first. Varying roles or setting boundaries can make you feel guilty. Know that this guilt is part of the painful process of change. Guilt is an emotion you can tolerate, you are strong. Generally, the guilt comes up because you feel like you made a mistake. However, in these situations ask yourself, “did I really make a mistake by putting my needs first?”. You deserve to put your needs first.
Allowing Yourself to Learn
Remember, all these tips are hard work. It is completely okay if you cannot do all of these “perfectly”. Thriving is all about allowing yourself to learn what you need. We learn through experience and making mistakes. Remember, if you have been surviving through the past few years, there is no harm in that. We make changes when we are ready! If you have questions or notice that you may benefit from reaching out to a provider before the holidays do not be afraid to reach out! Have a wonderful holiday season!