Resiliency: Around the holidays – ways to cope with stressful gatherings

By Jane Smiley

When I hear people say how excited they are for the holidays, my body goes through a roller coaster. I want to be excited as well, but because of years of traumatic events surrounding my family and the holidays, I just am left with a pit in my stomach.

While that sounds terrible, I want to shed light on how far I’ve been able to come to do something positive about it and ways that I currently cope with stressful gatherings. Although I’m not out of the woods yet with my anxiety leading up to holidays, I’ve certainly made some new and positive progress.

1. Counseling is my friend. Not only is mental health a critical issue right now, counseling has helped me overcome some of the trauma from the past. I have an excellent counselor who is available via Skype even, and it has made a huge impact in my life.
2. Free app that really helps. It’s called Excel At Life (you can find it online or as an app) and it offers a variety of articles and audios. Some of their audios offers assistance with anxiety, panic, relaxation, self-talk assistance, mindfulness and more. This app is really amazing and I recommend it for anyone regardless of situation.
3. Development of new holiday traditions. This tip I received has been a most helpful one. Since the years past have been traumatic, I find now instead of trying to hide during the holidays, now I’m developing some new traditions. Research shows that this actually creates new neuropathways in your brain and you can actually change the way you think about the holidays (or other stressful events) because you’re replacing new memories over them. Pretty cool, right? Now I visit friends for the holidays and we play a certain board game each year. It’s become something I truly look forward to.
4. Volunteer. Yes, we’ve heard about volunteerism in the past, but did you know that your body and brain actually go through some pretty neat things when you volunteer? Helping others changes your body chemistry and can help alleviate the feeling of dread and anxiety by replacing those feelings with joy and accomplishment.
5. Give yourself space. I’ve learned to really give myself space during the holidays. If I don’t feel up to participating in plans, I don’t and I give myself permission to be okay with that. It always helps to have someone listen to how I feel and validate those emotions too. Usually when I’ve talked about how I feel and give myself adequate space, I then am able to retreat out of my shell of fear and can begin to enjoy the holidays to the best of my ability at the moment.
If you have experienced family trauma or abuse and the holidays are a trigger for you, I hope this message sheds light that you’re not alone and that this doesn’t have to be a life sentence. I encourage you to try some of the tips mentioned here along with some that you may have thought of and that you too have enjoyment to the upcoming holidays.