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Topics: Ethical Living | Health

6 ways to cope with this difficult holiday season

Some advice informed by a decade in therapy


Like many couples, my partner and I celebrated the holidays alone for the first time in our seven-year relationship last year. Our usual routine of crisscrossing southern Ontario to spend a few hours with our families was out of the question. It was bittersweet to talk to our relatives through screens, but everyone understood health and safety was the greatest gift we could hope for.

This year, our families are vaccinated and eager to reunite and celebrate Christmas, but rising COVID-19 rates in Ontario, not to mention the financial and emotional pressure the holidays bring, are making me anxious about returning to the rigamarole. In an Angus Reid poll released in December, 53 percent of Canadians said they are feeling more holiday stress this year than most previous years. Like many people with a diagnosed mental illness, the holidays can make my condition a lot worse, and it’s already shaping up to be a tense Christmas. Some family members have opted out of celebrating as a group, while others insist on it, creating divisions sure to bleed into Christmas Day.

I’ve compiled six tips I’ll be using to navigate this unusual holiday season, informed by my decade in therapy, specifically dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioural therapy, and a recent webinar I attended about navigating the holidays at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)’s Collaborative Learning College.

1. Set boundaries

Make boundaries your best friend. Setting them can be tough, especially for people with a history of trauma, but clearly communicated boundaries improve self-esteem, reduce emotional labour and limit resentment.

Whether the boundary is as small as a time limit on visits with relatives, or something larger like not wanting to gather at all, communicate as clearly as possible using “I feel” as opposed to “you” statements: “I feel anxious about celebrating with the family this year because of rising COVID-19 cases, so I’m going to stay home.” Try not to explain yourself once you’ve voiced your needs, and if you feel a boundary is likely to be disrespected, make the consequences of violating it clear as soon as you set it.

2. Identify your safe people

If we’re lucky, we all have at least one person within our family (or chosen family) who is understanding and easy to talk to. Determining your safe person (or people) might make you feel less isolated.

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My safe person is my partner. Before we started dating, even though I was surrounded by my family during the holidays, it felt like I was viewing them through binoculars. I couldn’t risk telling them my true emotions, lest I ruin the day. This time is much less stressful now that I have a person to fight my corner, talk to when I’m distressed, or bail with me if Christmas Day proves to be too much.

3. Reduce vulnerabilities

Whenever I’m confronting a stressful circumstance, I make sure my physical needs are addressed first. If I’m hungry, tired or under the influence of mood-altering substances, I’m more likely to be vulnerable to extreme emotions like anxiety, depression or anger.

Though the holidays are often a time of excess, I pay extra care to my body. I eat more, but I still focus on balanced eating, maintaining a consistent sleep routine, exercising when possible and limiting alcohol intake. If I do decide to drink, I use harm reduction strategies like having a glass of water between alcoholic beverages to reduce my overall intake, setting a time to stop drinking and sticking to it, or being mindful about the speed of my consumption.

4. Radical acceptance

Ugh. Radical acceptance. It’s easily one of the hardest of the DBT skills to practice, but crucial for when you can’t stop painful events and emotions from coming your way.

This holiday season, you might find yourself at odds with people you’re close to. You might start thinking about how things “shouldn’t be this way”—a good clue you’re fighting reality.

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However, there are causes for the moment you find yourself in that only allow the present to occur exactly as it is. Try to accept the situation not just with your mind, but your body, incorporating breathwork or other mindfulness activities. Imagine how you would behave if you accepted the situation, and then engage in those behaviours as if you’d already done so. Allow for disappointment and sadness, but let those feelings pass.

5. Coping ahead

When I have a difficult situation to face, I use the DBT skill coping ahead to practice navigating uncomfortable circumstances gracefully:

  1. In advance, I describe the situation that’s likely to prompt an unwanted behaviour in as much detail as possible.
  2. I decide which coping or problem-solving skills will be most helpful. I write down exactly how I will cope, my emotions, and unpleasant urges that arise.
  3. I imagine myself in the situation.
  4. I rehearse using my coping skills in the situation, practicing exactly what I’ll say and how I’ll say it. I imagine new problems that could arise, like my most feared outcome, and rehearse coping effectively with them.
  5. I take time to relax and wind down after rehearsing.

6. Positive versus negative responses

Despite my time in treatment, it’s still much easier for me to rely on the coping skills that got me through my childhood than the ones I’ve listed here. They’re instinctual and effective even if they no longer serve me.

A focus of CAMH’s webinar was identifying positive versus negative responses to stressful situations. It might be tempting to raise your voice and react to a family member whose values or opinions don’t align with yours, but that is a negative response. Instead, you could try taking a break or finding a mindful moment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you might be tempted to suppress your emotions or needs to accommodate others. Try embracing your emotions and listening to what you need in the moment to feel better.

I hope these tips help you have a safe and happy holiday season.

Miranda Newman is a Toronto-based writer and editor.

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