“Fourteen people,” said my mom. Wait. Fourteen people?
My family is not used to hosting that many people for Thanksgiving, and as soon as she said the number I noticed a definite jump in my heart rate. But why was it so stressful?
Sharing time with family and friends (and having fourteen to share it with) is a gift—yet I dreaded the preparation, the cleanup, being pressed for time with clients booked in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, the prospect of limited energy when the holidays seem to demand it—in short, I was stressed. Sure, I’m a therapist, but like everyone else, I’m a human being and I struggle with managing holiday stress.
I’m also not alone, which means you aren’t, either.
Stress is a common problem during the holidays.
While we’d like to enjoy winter’s brighter traditions, from peppermint lattes and twinkly lights to some of the year’s best sales, it’s easy to get sidelined by the season’s many trials. As the calendar comes to a close, challenges like deadlines, loneliness, unstable finances and the obligation to spend time with difficult relatives can take up residence in the most cheerful of minds, along with a grey, mournful grief for the life we wish we had, or perhaps one we have no longer.
And for comfort, many of us human beings resort to overeating, extra alcohol, avoidance, even procrastination—coping mechanisms that might suffice in moderation, but can handily work against us. Our excesses can lead to more anxiety, despair and depression.
So what can we do when we’re faced with higher-than-normal stress levels, and our current methods of coping aren’t proving as effective as we’d like to them to be? Before we can deal with stress in a positive way, we need to know what it is, and how it impacts our bodies.
Know what’s happening
Stress begins with a “stress trigger”—anything that activates the sympathetic nervous system (think “S for stress”), also known as the “fight or flight” response of the body. The stress response is recognizable and for some, familiar: a noticeable shift in breathing, increased heart rate, feeling sweaty and ready for some kind of action. In the face of actual threat, the stress response is crucial whether we’re being chased by a bear, tackling a pile of bills or enduring an annoying coworker.
Sometimes, though, stress triggers activate our stress response to a “perceived” threat rather than an actual threat, and we act out of “fight or flight,” unintentionally creating more conflict.
Here’s a classic example: All day long, your stress response has been triggered with deadlines, demands and difficult people. When you finally get home, your sympathetic nervous system has been active for quite a while and is still “on,” so when a loved one innocently asks, “How was your day?” you’re likely to snap with “It’s fine!” or “Can’t I have just one minute to myself?” Your response appears unreasonable, unwarranted, and by the time you realize you were too harsh, a fresh emotional wound has already been created.
The holidays in particular present us with a lot of triggers. Not all of them are negative (spending time with fourteen loved ones), many of them are small (washing dishes), but they can pile up to cast a looming, daunting shadow. Sometimes they’re substantial. It’s a time when the loss of loved ones seems especially vivid, and the latter part of this year in particular has seen tragedies like the Woolsey Fire and the Thousand Oaks shooting, and that’s in Southern California alone.
It can be extraordinarily difficult to process these triggers, big and small, all at once and during a fast-paced holiday season. Even those of us with specialized training on how the brain and body respond to stress aren’t immune to it. We do, however, have tools to deal with it.
Flipping the switch
Now that we understand how our stress response is engaged, we can find a solution in doing the opposite. We need to switch the stress response off and switch our parasympathetic nervous system (think “P for peace”) into action—in other words, switch on the peaceful and restful response.
The next time you’re aware that your stress response has been engaged, here are eight simple ways you can turn on your peaceful and restful response:
1) Count backwards from 100, in 7’s, 3’s or 2’s.
2) Find the closest written words and read them backwards.
3) Listen to your favorite music.
4) Take seven slow deep breaths, with a seven-second inhale, a seven-second hold and seven-second exhale.
5) Count ten things in the room.
6) Notice five different sounds in the room
7) Step away if you are able. Take frequent breaks.
8) Go for a walk.
I’ve found these methods of dealing with stress very helpful, and as the holidays roll around with the added stress of shopping, planning and socializing, you might gain peace of mind from them, too. But know that this is not an exhaustive list.
I could write a thousand different blogs on stress (and there are more to follow) to complement the countless resources available that describe an endless variety of coping mechanisms. It’s a rich and relatable subject that begs a number of approaches. What’s important is finding a way of dealing with stress that feels right to you.
But if you’re constantly overwhelmed, if you repeatedly find yourself in states of fight, flight or freeze, if your trigger is something big like having to face an assaulter in a social situation, if you have a trauma-related disorder or other impactful diagnosis, advice from a blog is not going to help. In cases like these, I urge you to seek professional consultation.
Facing reality is key to coping with stress. And while the season is magical with sweet escapes and storybook endings, it’s important to remember that we don’t live in a Hallmark fantasy. Bumping into an old beau or standing under the mistletoe won’t make our problems disappear. Life is full of obstacles, and it serves us humans to keep a toolbox equipped to deal with them.
Vigilance, diligence, and appropriate care are the most effective routes through stress—through the holidays and beyond!
About Your Santa Clarita Therapist
Kristina de Bree is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in the state of California and an EMDRIA certified Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapist with a private practice in Valencia. She focuses on helping individuals build, mend and develop healthy relationships and authentic connections with others and with themselves, and as a Valencia EMDR therapist, she is specially qualified to treat trauma, sexual abuse, and medical illness, right here in Santa Clarita. Kristina believes that the core of every working relationship should be built on trust, authenticity and quality. She brings a deep value and care for the patient experience, believing that change is made through relationships that are trusting, caring and safe.