When the Holidays are Emotionally Fraught

We need tools to deal with triggered emotions.

Posted Dec 20, 2019

There are many myths about how families and holidays should be. Families should love each other. Families should get along. The holidays should be fun…to name but a few. But the reality is much more complex. And, when we use the word should, what we often mean is how we wish things would be. Truthfully, many people do not have loving families, happy families, happy family memories, or happy holidays. As a result, the holidays cause anxiety, shame, and bring up unsettling and even traumatic memories. We benefit from having some education and skills on how to work with our emotions.

For example, Christopher grew up in a harsh and joyless household. Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), the kind of emotion and attachment-oriented psychotherapy I practice, helped heal the anxiety, shame, and depression caused by his attachment trauma so he had a satisfying life... until the month of November rolled around. Like clockwork, his anxiety rose and his mood plummeted. He felt dread with a heaviness in his body and a foreboding sense that something bad would happen. The combination of hating time with his own family, plus knowing his friends looked forward to spending time with their families, made him feel very sad and lonely.

Alison, as another example, had a great big family that she mostly enjoyed. But she hated her brother’s wife who was consistently mean to her. Just being in the same room with her sister-in-law filled her with anxiety that made her dread Christmas.

We can drink to numb our feelings, or hopefully deal with holiday emotions in healthier ways. The Change Triangle is the tool I use. Instead of blocking our core emotions, which can lead to anxiety, depression, feeling small, or engaging in self-destructive behaviors, the Change Triangle teaches us how to notice and be with our emotions so we stay connected to our authentic self. It is important for wellbeing to validate our truth, to give ourselves compassion, and to think through how best to get through tough events skillfully.

Christopher needed support and encouragement to let himself be sad. It wasn’t depression, which results from suppressing core emotions like anger and sadness. Chris was experiencing core sadness from a real loss—the loss of the family he had always wanted but never had. Christopher learned to give himself permission to be sad when he felt sad—to not fear his sadness, but instead to honor it. When he allowed himself this freedom to feel, he was better able to engage with work and with friends. He didn’t feel as disconnected.

This year Alison learned new emotional strategies to survive her sister-in-law. She would actively work with her emotions in real-time. When she noticed her anxiety rise, she learned NOT to go up in her head and ruminate on her thoughts. Instead, she tuned into her body to compassionately notice the anxiety, which she felt as a trembling in her chest. Then she took deep belly breaths to calm the anxiety as she tried to name and validate the underlying core emotions. She named sadness and anger.

Alison also learned NOT to judge her emotions. Instead, she accepted them as information. Working with one emotion at a time, she tuned in to how the feeling felt physically and stayed with the sensations until an impulse manifested. For example, she noticed sadness in her body marked by a heaviness in her chest and a feeling behind her eyes that told her she needed to cry. She accepted her sadness and gave herself compassion. She also noticed anger. Lots of anger. So much anger that she labeled it as rage.

In therapy, Alison practiced getting comfortable with her anger by staying with the sensations anger created in her body. She noticed the energy and heat of her anger. She noticed an impulse to punch. One goal of AEDP therapy is to get the energy of our emotions up and out of us so they don’t stay stuck and make us anxious and depressed. Alison used her imagination to release the impulses of her anger. Her anger wanted to punch her sister-in-law in the nose and yell at her to get out of her brother’s life. Permission to have the fantasy gave Alison visceral relief. Validating the underlying anger each time her anxiety rose was a huge help in calming her down. It didn’t make the feelings go away but it did help her get through the day without so much anxiety that she couldn't be present.

Here are 5 tips to help get through a difficult holiday occasion:

  1. Don’t avoid your emotions. Instead, validate them. Work the Change Triangle.
  2. Give yourself compassion. Notice if you are being hard on yourself or blaming yourself and instead be compassionate to your suffering. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend or child.
  3. Remember that what you feel is temporary, even though it may feel like forever.
  4. Remember you are not a kid anymore when your brain didn’t have the ability to use words to advocate for yourself. Now you can. Set limits and boundaries! Don’t let yourself be treated badly. Say “no” or “please don’t speak to me that way,” for example. You can leave an abusive situation.
  5. Try a new approach. Family members often get stuck in roles. Try something new. For example, I suggested to Alison (after she lowered her anxiety by having her anger fantasy) that she try winning her sister-in-law over by walking right up to her, looking her in the eyes, and finding something on which to compliment her: her earrings, outfit, shoes, etc. By taking the high road, you get back some control. “Kill them with kindness,” as they say. If the new approach doesn’t work, it’s ok. Be proud of yourself for trying something new.

If the holidays are hard for you, know that you are not alone. My experience has taught me that for all of us, the holiday season brings forth a generous cocktail of core emotions: sadness, anger, fear, disgust, excitement, and joy. In the words of Harry Stack Sullivan: “Everyone is much more simply human than otherwise, be happy and successful, contented and detached, miserable and mentally disordered, or whatever.” And that applies to the holidays… especially.