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Oy, The Holidays: Anticipating An Emotional Rollercoaster?

If you may be facing some tough situations, use this guide to essential skills.

(c) ArielMartin/fotosearch
I'm supposed to be enjoying this . . .
Source: (c) ArielMartin/fotosearch

Of the many life situations that may predictably create an emotional roller coaster, "joyful" holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas may top the list. With or without family, holiday seasons and celebrations can prove to be especially emotionally provocative. This article shares techniques from my most recent book, Prescriptions Without Pills, techniques for dealing with distressing emotional ups and downs.


Anxiety arises when something important to a person feels endangered in any way. What creates anxiety for you at holiday events?

Fears, for instance, that you may lose your composure at a family event can be anxiety-provoking for many folks. No one wants to look like they have "lost it." Anxiety can stem as well from worries about facing people who have hurt your feelings in the past.

What are your personal dreads? What scares you about holidays and holiday gatherings?

Once anxiety arises, thinking and problem-solving tend to diminish. That's because anxiety causes your mind either to hyperfocus on one detail or to become dispersed into a wide brain-fog. Preparation ahead of time, when you are still able to stay in your most effective thinking mode, therefore is key.

To click into problem-solving, one technique involves sitting down at your computer or with a pen and paper. Make a list of all the thoughts that come to mind that make the anxiety even worse. Yes, you read that correctly. Write down all the thoughts that evoke that anxious feeling, and especially the ones that make it worse.

Once you have listed all of these culprits that you can think of, that is, the concerns provoking your anxious feelings, you have already succeeded in chunking the problem into more manageable pieces. In addition, by transforming the thoughts from the jumble that had been roiling in your mind to an orderly list on the computer or paper, you have both lined them up and externalized them to where you can see them. It's like kids all crowding around a water fountain versus lining up to take turns. And transforming scarey thoughts you can't quite grasp to problems you now can begin to deal with.

Now circle back to the first item on your list. What information do you need to begin to map a plan of action for handling this concern?

Information is one of the best antidotes to anxiety. That's because information can lead to the formulation of a plan of action. As you gather information, allow thoughts to arise of what this information tells you about a good next step to take.

So for instance, one concern might be that at holiday dinners Uncle Joe drinks too much, and when he drinks he tends to get aggressive, especially toward you. What information might prove helpful?

Ah, contact your mother for an update on Uncle Joe's drinking. Contact your sister for her thoughts on what she will do if Uncle Joe starts into his mean drunk mode. Keep going until you, or better yet the group of you, have come up with a firm plan of action for preventing Uncle Joe from spreading ill will that might otherwise poison the holiday cheer.

Do the same for each concern on your list, gathering information for each and then designing a plan of action.

Conclude with writing out your full plan of action.

Bravo. Pat yourself on the back for having switched from brain freeze, which perpetuates anxiety, to finding solutions!


Anger arises when you are getting something you don't want—like, for instance, unmerited criticism. Anger arises also when you are not getting something you do want—like, for instance, over the holidays, respectful treatment from family members

As with anxiety, a good way to start is to write out the concerns that your anger is telling you to address. Include both what you may be getting that you do not want and also what you want that you may not be getting.

Now circle back to the beginning of your list. For each item, each concern, prevent the impulse to speak out in anger—and also the need to suppress your anger by converting it into an internal unexpressed hard tumor of resentment. Prevention involves figuring out more effective ways to get what you want and stop what you don't want.

For instance, maybe plan to use your legs rather than your mouth. Stand up and walk out of the room when anyone, like potentially alcoholic oldster Uncle Joe, starts acting aggressively with you.

Once you have a new and better solution in mind, practice it by visualizing the scene in your mind. Play the scene over multiple times, as you might keep replaying a scene in a movie that you have especially enjoyed.

Prevention by mapping a plan of action for handling potential anger-triggering moments can significantly raise the odds that you will be able to enjoy anger-free holidays. And that you will end the holidays feeling super proud of yourself.


Do you sometimes get the happy-holidays blues? If so, close your eyes. Ask yourself, "If I were to feel mad at someone or something, who or what would I be mad at?"

The image that will arise on your visual screen is likely to zoom in on precisely the worst-case scenario that you have been anticipating. Then test if this is in fact the moment that has triggered your depressed, hopeless feelings by asking yourself a next question: Who looks bigger, me or the person or thing I am picturing?

If this is in fact the trigger for your bluesy, depressed emotional state, the person or thing you have pictured is likely to look significantly bigger than you. Maybe, for instance, you pictured your baby. Your image might have been that the baby will keep waking up, as he has been doing, at night. Once you get up to help him, you often cannot fall back to sleep, leaving you tired and grumpy for days on end. In this case, it's likely that—unlikely though it may sound—the baby will look huge and you will look far smaller.

Next step, keeping your eyes closed, take a few deep breaths, and with each breath, visualize yourself growing. Imagine that there was magic growing powder in that deeply breathed-in air. Watch yourself grow larger, taller, stronger.

Notice how much larger you now look. With a larger size, notice how you begin to feel more powerful than the other.

From this larger size, you will find yourself more effective in problem-solving. What could you do to get more sleep, even though the baby may continue to wake up and cry? One option might be to follow the rule, "You sleep when the baby sleeps." That is, sleep day or night whenever the baby sleeps so that you no longer feel exhausted. Or maybe the solution that comes to mind might be to invite a friend who has offered help to come sleep at your house for several nights until you feel stronger. Finding solutions stops the roller coaster. Your down and out feelings will give way to well-being as you find ways to solve your dilemma.

In sum, as you move forward into the holiday season,

may your emotional roller coaster slow down, steady itself, and find new pathways, pathways that enable you to deal more effectively with whatever lies ahead. Face the potential bumps head-on, find solutions, and enjoy.