Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Holiday Decorations Got You Down? Try Resetting Your Brain

Neuroscience helps with seasonal blues

While people around you seem to be jauntily humming along to “Silver Bells,” and enjoying the twinkling lights and candy canes, are you secretly wondering where you can hide away till the season’s over? Painful memories and feelings are often triggered by these bright and cheerful visual and aural signals. These emotions can be linked to childhood disappointments and hurts or more recent emotional upheaval – loss of a loved one, breakup of a relationship, or life changes, even happy ones like a child’s wedding or a new job. Sylvia*, for example, starts to feel sad and lonely with the first sign of holiday decorations, which stir up memories of a series of what she calls painful childhood “non-celebrations.” While other children were getting presents and visiting with loving family, Sylvia was watching television in a small, untidy apartment while her mother drank herself into a stupor. Janice*, on the other hand, loved everything about the holidays; but when her daughter moved across the country to be with her new boyfriend, and went with him to his family to celebrate Christmas, Janice found her eyes filling with tears and her heart dropping to her feet every time she passed a Christmas tree or heard a Christmas carol.

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What makes these symbols so hurtful? And when they’re all around you, what can you do to get through the holidays despite them?

We know that painful memories and emotions can be triggered by these signs of the holidays. But as we understand more about the brain, we have better ways of thinking about these emotional responses. This understanding can help us use our brains to actually change our emotional reactions.

According to neuroscientists, these feelings of sadness, disappointment and unfulfilled longing are triggered by the signals our brain receives from our eyes, nose, mouth and ears as we walk through stores or into our beautifully decorated office building. According to psychiatrist, researcher and author Dr. Daniel Siegel, the neurons in our brains almost tumble over themselves to line up in old and familiar response patterns to cues like these. So the trick is to find ways to change those neuron patterns.

I have recently finished writing a book on integrative practices in clinical social work (which should, all things being equal, be published by Springer Publishing Company in the spring of 2014). In that book I talk about my own practice of putting together concepts from different perspectives. And that is exactly what I am suggesting that you do.

Studies of the brain have shown that talking about our feelings to another person who is nonjudgmental and is interested in what we have to say (like when we talk to a therapist) can actually change the brain. But it takes time and repeated practice for the neurons to realign themselves – something like learning a new exercise routine at the gym. We all get better and stronger the more we practice the actions. So I often encourage clients to do other activities to help their brains begin to be more comfortable with any new neuron arrangement.

Here are some of the techniques that clients have found helpful:

-          Change your thought connections. In his work on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, psychologist Steven Hayes suggests that this is actually easier than it might sound. Start with tiny steps though, so that your brain isn’t overwhelmed by the task. Just like you don’t start lifting the heaviest weight at the beginning of a weight-training regimen, you shouldn’t start with the command that you stop thinking about the things that are making you sad. Instead, try to find one positive or happy idea to focus on. Hayes says that this is one way to change the stories you tell yourself – for example, instead of automatically accepting that the holidays are always awful for you, ask yourself if there is anything at all that you might enjoy about them. Do you like eggnog, for instance? If so, pick some up at the grocery store – or maybe even make some yourself! And set up a special time and place to sip it slowly and savor it. Since the holiday theme is making you sad, have your eggnog in a non-holiday mood and setting. Turn on lots of lights – no candles, if they are associated with the season – and play summertime music while you enjoy your nog.   

-          Change your behavior. Again, do something small. Marcia Linehan, who developed Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, says that just putting a smile on your face (no matter what you might actually be feeling) can change how people react to you – and that can change how you feel about yourself. When Janice reluctantly tried this exercise, she found to her amazement that her mood quickly lifted. If you can’t smile, try singing to yourself – a non-holiday song, of course. Or listen to a humorous podcast while you walk down the street. And just pay attention to what happens.

-          Soothe your body. Our minds, bodies and emotions are, as we know now, intimately tied to one another. If you take a warm shower, get a massage, or just gently rub moisturizing cream onto your entire body, you are not only soothing your physical self, but you are also sending a message to your brain and your emotional self. You are saying that you are a person worth taking care of (again, no matter how you are actually feeling at the moment). And of course, you are also relaxing tight muscles. All of this changes the neuron patterns!

-          Reframe your ideas about the holidays. Instead of a sad and lonely day, maybe you can think about each one as a time to relax, be alone and take care of yourself. Start a new tradition for yourself. This year, for a variety of reasons, my family couldn’t be together for Thanksgiving. I didn’t feel like making a Thanksgiving dinner, although that has been a family tradition for what seems forever. Instead, those of us who were together went out for a Mexican meal. And had such a delightful time that it may become a new annual tradition!

-          Make contact with other people. Loneliness can be a powerful way of reinforcing old neuron pathways. To break the habits of your neurons, you have to break out of your isolation. Talk to anyone – the bus driver on your way to work may be surprised and thrilled that you are actually paying attention to him when you ask how he is doing as you pay your fare. And his responsive smile can shock your neurons into a new, if momentary, pattern. If he doesn’t smile, talk to yourself – this doesn’t mean that you’re doomed, but more likely that he is having the same problems with the holidays that you’re having!    

-          And finally, remember, you are not alone. Take a look at all of the blogs (including some of mine from previous years) about the holiday blues. One of the most significant causes of sadness at this time of year is the feeling that you are somehow left out of the festivities, the joy that everyone else is feeling. My PT colleague Susan Krauss Whitbourne has beautifully described some of the physiological and neurological underpinnings of this feeling, and has some helpful suggestions about how to deal with them.

Changing our emotions is a complex process. It involves counteracting messages going through our nervous system – often messages we never hear directly, because they are conducted through chemicals and electrical impulses rather than words and thoughts. Small as each of these little changes might seem, they can be useful exercises that help your brain change these nonverbal, often unthought messages our body and psyche exchange. And they can make the dreadful holidays a little more bearable. Maybe, just maybe, you might even find a moment or two of pleasure.

*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.

Useful books and articles:

Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith: Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (A New Harbinger Self-Help book)

Hasse Karlsson, MA, MD, PhD:  “How Psychotherapy Changes the Brain”

Marsha M. Linehan: Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder

Daniel Siegel: The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD: “The Neuroscience of Rejection”

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F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.


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