It's Not Always Depression, Sometimes It's the Holidays
Posted by hilaryjacobshendel
21st Dec 2017

There are many myths and “shoulds” about how families and holidays should be: Families should love each other. Families should get along. Holidays should be fun. Reality, however, does not reflect these “shoulds.” The facts are: many people do not have happy families, happy family memories or happy holidays. Therefore, holidays and families can trigger us into states of anxiety, shame, and misery. Perhaps your parent or child is mean to you, or you have an active alcoholic uncle that makes everyone tense, or you have endured abuse or neglect and the holidays trigger you into a depressed mood, or you feel lonely even though people - even people you love - are all around you. These kinds of experiences are common and can make the holidays challenging.

Christopher spent years in a harsh and joyless household. Therapy and good adult choices helped a lot and he led a satisfying life - until November rolled around. Then, like clockwork, his anxiety rose and his mood plummeted. Anxiety set in as he anticipated the two months ahead. Seeing his friends and colleagues happy and excited about the holidays made him feel worse.

Alison was close with most of her family members. But she hated her brother’s wife who was mean to her. Just the prospect of being in the same room with this sister-in-law filled Alison with dread.

We can drink ‘til we forget. Or we can deal with holiday misery in healthier ways that really serve us well. The Change Triangle is the guide I use to work with painful emotions. Instead of suppressing core survival emotions, like anger and sadness, which can lead to anxiety and depression, the Change Triangle shows us how to notice and be with our emotions so we stay connected to our authentic self. 

Chris was appropriately sad from a real loss—the loss of the family he had always wanted but never had. Christopher needed support and encouragement to feel his sadness. Anxiety diminishes when people experience their feelings instead of squashing them down. By working the Change Triangle, Christopher began to honor his sadness instead of fearing and avoiding it. When he allowed himself to feel sad, he found he had many, many more moments when he felt better. Taking it one day at a time, he got through the holiday season by honoring his feelings, being kind and compassionate to his pain, and reminding himself the holidays would soon be over and his mood would improve.

Alison used the Change Triangle to develop new strategies to survive her sister-in-law. For example, she actively worked with her emotions in real-time: when she noticed herself feeling anxious, she would turn loving attention to the anxious sensations in her body, take deep belly breaths and strive to name and validate the underlying core emotions like sadness, anger, and fear. She didn’t judge her emotions because she now knew emotions just are—they happen automatically. Validating including naming anger each time her anxiety rose by simply saying to herself, “I am angry and that makes sense since my sister-in-law is mean to me,” was a huge help in calming her nerves. It didn’t make the anger go away, but it did help her feel better in the moment and get through the day without unhealthy numbing or wanting to explode.

Here are five suggestions to help you get through the holidays as you grow and change for the better:

Don’t avoid your emotions. Instead, validate them. Work the Change Triangle. 
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.
Remind yourself that emotions are temporary (even though they may feel like they could last forever).
Remember to kindly, yet firmly, set limits and boundaries. Don’t let yourself be abused. We can all learn to do this even though it is never easy.
Try new approaches. Family members often get stuck in roles. For example, I suggested to Alison that she try an experiment: to win her sister-in-law over by walking right up to her, looking her in the eyes, and finding something to compliment her on: her earrings, outfit, shoes etc. By taking the high road, you get back some control. Kill them with kindness, as they say. Or, when that doesn't work, in moments of conflict, the words, "We just have to agree to disagree," ends a conflict neutrally.

Finally, if the holidays are hard for you, know that you are not alone. This Thanksgiving I deeply missed my daughter and my sister. For all of us, the holidays bring forth a generous mix of emotions. It’s not whether we have emotions that determine our fate, it’s how we make use of them. Armed with a general understanding of emotions, a willingness to work with them using a sensible guide like the Change Triangle, and the courage to try something new, we have all that we need to feel well or well enough and effectively manage ourselves and our relationships. 

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