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Coping with Holiday Emotions

A How-to Guide for Dealing with Difficult Emotions

written by Laura Dabney, M.D. November 26, 2019
Coping with Holiday Emotions

I know, I know … you’re supposed to be full of merriment and joy this time of year, right? Meh. In truth, you’re probably full of emotion this holiday season. From feeling anxious about cooking a great meal or guilty for not having more time, or angry that you have to deal with “the same old situation”, or frustrated, or depressed or totally burnt out, or … the list goes on.

And when Santa squeezes his fat ass down the chimney tonight, he’s going to find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse. – Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Believe it or not, most people are not entirely joyful throughout November and December. Knowing this, we’ve put together a list of coping strategies to help you deal with the most common holiday-triggering emotions — anger, guilt, and anxiety — and still make the most of the season.

Anger

Something is said or done that hits an old nerve. Your Dad has nothing positive to say about your life, your Mom calls you a name or your sibling brings up an embarrassing story in front of your significant other. Suddenly, the fire builds in your chest and you feel a distinct need to hit something or run or yell.

Anger is a normal response to the feeling you’ve been wronged. Unfortunately, deep-seated anger (the stuff reminiscent of childhood issues) can quickly boil over and escalate into a full-on argument, potentially ruining your entire holiday weekend.

Avoid the all-out brawl by dealing with anger in these healthier ways:

1. Address the issue immediately, before it escalates.

Ask directly and calmly for what you need: “I need to change the subject,” “I need to take a break from this conversation,” or “I will need to leave if you say that again.”

2. Explain how their words and actions make you feel.

They may not know. Remember, even a loved one or relative can’t read your mind. Say: “When you say things like that, it really hurts and makes me angry. It would help me a lot if you didn’t bring that up in the future.” The trick is to keep it personal to you so it doesn’t sound critical of them.

3. Take a walk.

Simply leave the room and return after you’ve had a chance to breathe and process the angry feelings. Usually, 20 minutes is enough to calm down and return refreshed.

4. Avoid pushing their buttons in return.

It may feel good in the moment, but attacking back adds fuel to the fire, doesn’t deliver the results you want and, actually, rescues the inappropriate person. If you become inappropriate, then the spotlight goes off your relative and onto you! By staying calm, your relative will be left to take responsibility and that might just might be motivation to change.

Guilt

Maybe you can’t come home or stay long enough. Maybe you’re opting to spend the holidays with friends or your significant other’s family, or maybe you need to work. Whatever it is, you feel like you’re disappointing your family and the guilt is piling up.

Guilt happens when we feel like we’ve violated our own standards and integrity. The holidays are fertile ground for guilt because, with the turkey and the cranberry sauce, come tough choices that may affect the people you love.

Here are some simple strategies to help you deal when guilt hits hard:

1. Find out if the basis for your guilt is real or imagined.

Ask how your family feels.

Are you really upset that I can’t come home, Mom?

We can often exaggerate how much we affect other people.

2. Remember their disappointment is not your responsibility.

Your family is entitled to their feelings, but you cannot always fix them. It’s absolutely ok for you to have your own life and do what’s best for you.

3. Think about what you can do to relieve some guilt.

For example, if you can’t be with your family, find a way to make your presence felt. Send a centerpiece bouquet for the table, have a bottle of champagne delivered, or call to check in throughout the weekend. Ultimately, the idea is to find what works for you.

Anxiety

Will a massive argument ruin the weekend? Will your significant other mention politics at the dinner table? Perhaps you are worried you will overcook the turkey. There are so many things that could go wrong, and you feel completely out of control. You’re anxious. That buzzing, jittering feeling is taking over and you just want it to go away.

Anxiety can be debilitating, and with so many details at play, the holidays are ripe territory for the “what-ifs” and worry to take over.

Before anxiety builds, try these three strategies:

1. Before the event, review how your anxiety usually plays out and make a plan.

I usually worry the house isn’t clean enough, get anxious and yell at my family members to help me more. This puts them in a bad mood and they don’t look forward to the holidays.

Then flip the script:

Since I normally get anxious about the house, I’m going to hire a cleaning service so my expectations remain in check and we can all enjoy this holiday (and future holidays) better.

2. Change it up.

If you’re in a stressful situation or an anxious moment, put down the tongs (or hand them to someone else) and get moving. I know what you’ll be thinking:

If I leave now, who will fix what I’m worried about?

The issue is probably smaller than it feels, so force yourself to make a move. Talk it out with a family member you trust. Focus on breathing. Leave the room or the house. Take a walk outside with or without (calming) music — this is one of the easiest ways to adjust your mental state. Whatever you do … don’t do nothing.

3. Prep your significant other to step in and diffuse an anxious situation.

He or she can help you execute a plan you’ve established in advance:

Babe, weren’t you going to take a walk? I can take over in the kitchen.

You can even have a secret signal if you don’t want anyone else to know.

As the season grows near, we at Team Dabney are wishing everyone the most emotionally healthy holidays yet — even if your holiday anthem isn’t “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

To your emotional health,

Dr. Dabney

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