The holidays are a joy-filled season for many and represent a time to come together and celebrate, but for others, this time period can mean personal and professional struggle. The year-end crunch at work paired with holiday parties, kids’ events, family drama and general stress can create exhaustion.  This season may also amplify anxiety, depression, loneliness, and grief for many.

As you navigate this holiday season, here are a few suggestions to help if you feel overwhelmed or want to show up for others:

Try to Limit Overthinking:  For me, anxiety, exhaustion, and overthinking travel together.  I’ll overthink what someone said, what they didn’t say, what I’ve read, and more.  Two of my go-to strategies to help limit overthinking are writing and playing a mental game.  Expressive writing has been shown to slow rumination and ease depressive symptoms, among other benefits.  Writing about a challenging situation tends to diffuse the intensity of the loops because your brain gains some distance from its own stream of thoughts.  And it doesn’t have to look pretty or take a long time – just 10-15 minutes of writing about a struggle can help.

What also helps is to play a “mental game.”  I first learned about mental games in my work with the University of Pennsylvania resilience team.  A mental game is simply a distraction technique to help your brain break out of ruminative thinking.  Mental games must be fun, but challenging enough to refocus your thinking.  They must require your full attention and be able to be completed within a few minutes.  After all, if you’re laying in bed unable to fall asleep or need to refocus for an important meeting, you need a quick fix.  You can create your own mental game or try one of these:

  1. Math games:  one example is to start at 1000 and count backward by 7.  I avoid mental games that are math games because I get to 993 and then get frustrated that I can’t subtract in my head fast enough, thus compounding my problem.
  2. Category games:  I love sports, so I challenge myself to recite the last 10 winners of the Super Bowl or World Series; you could also name all of the US Presidents during a particular time period.
  3. Play the alphabet game:  a drill sergeant taught me this one, and he called it the “alphabet game.”  You start with the letter “a” and create a sentence where all the words in the sentence start with the letter “a:” “All astronauts are awesome.”  Then move to “b:” “Big balloons buy beaches.”  The sentences don’t have to make sense, and if they are silly, the jolt of positive emotions will help.  Continue through the alphabet until you are able to refocus on the task at hand.

Ignore Toxic Positivity.  Toxic positivity is the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even ones that are profoundly difficult or tragic.  It can make people who are struggling feel pressured to pretend they are happy even when they are not, and it silences negative emotions. People often don’t know how to react when confronted with grief or intense emotion and out of kindness (or discomfort) try to make the situation better. Unfortunately, it often backfires.  These phrases may signal toxic positivity: “Well at least…;” “Look on the bright side;” “Everything happens for a reason;” or “It could be worse.” When you respond with toxic positivity, you risk demeaning a loss, promoting isolation and stigma, and shutting down communication.

And Increase Empathy.  Empathy is the ability to see a person’s challenges from their perspective.  You don’t need to fix or to even respond, simply listen to understand and listen to learn about the person’s story.  All you really have to do is show up with an open mind and an open heart, but if you feel like saying something, try one of these phrases:

  • I’ve got your back
  • I’m thinking of you
  • I’m not going anywhere
  • I’m always here if you want to talk
  • I can’t begin to imagine what this is like, but I’m here

This quote from Pema Chödrön helped me understand empathy in a beautiful way: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded.  It is a relationship between equals.  Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.”

Ask, Is It Helping or Harming?  I discovered this wonderful strategy in Dr. Lucy Hone’s brilliant TED talk about resilient grieving. When Hone’s daughter, Abi, died suddenly in a car accident, Hone had to make multiple decisions in those early days of grieving.  To help her get through, she would ask herself, “Is this helping me or harming me?”  Is staying up all night looking at old photos helping or harming?  Is meeting the driver who was responsible for the accident helping or harming?  She talks about how that one question helped her navigate so many difficult choices, and importantly, activated resilience.  You can also apply this question to almost any situation:

  • Is not having a difficult conversation with my sister-in-law about our argument last year helping or harming?
  • Is staying up an extra two hours to watch TV instead of getting some much-needed sleep helping or harming?
  • Is not seeking clarity from my boss about my job performance helping or harming?

Asking this question is important because it activates control – you get to decide how (or whether) to act.

All of us have experienced grief, loss, challenge, and hard times.  For many, these experiences are heightened during the holidays, and there are emotions and reactions that can surprise us even if we’re feeling OK.  I think about this quote a lot during the holidays: “Between what is said and not meant, and what is meant and not said, most love is lost.”  Taking the time to care can change the trajectory of a person’s life.

You can text or call 988 for a 24-hour crisis and suicide lifeline.

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