emotional vulnerability at the holidaysThe holidays are a time of goodwill and cheer, but for many, they are also anniversaries of painful life events or trauma.  In advertisements we see happy people sharing good times, but when you’re not surrounded by loved ones, the holidays can be acute reminders of loneliness, disappointment, conflict and loss.

All of this can make the season a time when you are more likely to experience intense emotions.  If you don’t anticipate problems, intense emotion can send you off track and leave you escaping in unhealthy and problematic ways.

In order to reduce your vulnerability it’s important to understand what triggers an emotional response and to generate strategies to manage the emotions that might occur during the holidays.

  1. Ask yourself when do problems tend to begin?  What sets off intense and painful emotions?  Is it seeing other people surrounded by loved ones, being alone, holiday meals, conflict with friends or relatives?  If you’re not sure what sets off painful emotions try to remember what was going on the moment the emotion started.  Think about what you were you doing, thinking, or feeling the moment the problem started.
  2. Be alert for events that may automatically elicit responses (i.e. every time you watch a commercial about gift giving you feel sad); and things in the environment that may strengthen dealing with the problem in negative ways (i.e. when you overeat your mother stops focusing on your shortcomings)

It is also essential to challenge thoughts that keep painful emotions going and to plan on how you will respond to these emotional triggers if they occur.

  1. Do problematic beliefs or fears keep you from positive responses or prolong the emotional pain?  Become aware of automatic thoughts such as “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t handle it” or “I’ll always be alone” and generate cheerleading statements to counter them such as “I’ve handled it before, I can again,” “I’m strong and capable,” “It’s painful to be alone, but I it is not forever.”
  2. What other possible roads could you take along the way?  If none seem obvious, brainstorm.  Some may not work, but out of brainstorming you may find alternatives. Instead of overeating can you leave the room, enlist the help of a family member, directly ask your mother to stop her critiques of your life?

    In DBT there are a host of strategies designed to help you manage painful emotions and stressful times.  What works for you?  Have you improved how you get through the holidays?  Please use the comments section.

Photo by Chris J, available under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial license.