Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Keeping the Happy in Happy Holidays

Whatever holidays you celebrate this season, I hope they are happy. For many people, this is the best time of the year. Parties, gifts, decorating, baking, festivities and seeing friends and family bring considerable joy and delight. However, for those struggling with mental illness, loss or family dysfunction, December can be stressful and depressing. If you’re grieving and this is your first holiday without your loved one, things that have brought joy in the past may trigger sadness and tears. If you’ve had a big life change such as a divorce or all the children have left home and they won’t be with you for the holidays, the empty nest can hit very hard especially when it seems like everyone else is focusing on their kids or grandkids.

If you just haven’t been feeling in the holiday spirit this year, be easy on yourself. In my psychotherapy practice lately, I’ve been seeing significantly higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than in previous years. So unfortunately, you may in much better company than you probably expect. You don’t have to go all out celebrating; in fact, you don’t really have to do anything about the holidays at all. The week between Christmas and New Years can be a time of self-care and peace if that’s what works for you. Keep it simple, positive and calm. You don’t have to attend a single party, buy elaborate gifts, bake or send Christmas cards. Think about what is meaningful to you and do as much of that as possible. For many of us here in the Vail valley, the start of ski season is a highly anticipated time of adventure and fun. Don’t let holiday obligations keep you off the hill or out of the snow. 

Be careful about spending, overeating and too much alcohol. Hopefully you didn’t go beyond your budget when buying gifts. Research shows that in the long run, we remember and value positive activities and quality time with loved ones more than material objects. Stick to your fitness schedule and a healthy diet. Be sure to get enough sleep. People really underestimate how important quality sleep is in managing stress and keeping your mood bright. 

Social media can be a source of pleasure and amusement or it can be a real downer. Remember most people only post the good stuff that’s happening in their lives. Don’t overgeneralize and conclude that everyone but you has a great life and is having perfect holidays. It’s fun to share your best, most joyful or entertaining moments on your social media feed so don’t hesitate to do so. Using social media to feel closer and more connected to the people you care about can be a cherished source of happiness, validation and emotional support.

If you are introverted and find socializing exhausting, be attentive to your self-care needs. Consider attending only those events that are most meaningful or comfortable for you. It’s fine to leave a holiday celebration after only an hour instead of staying for an entire evening. If you have guests staying with you or you are staying in someone else’s home, make sure you carve out some quiet time for yourself without apology. Excuse yourself to lie down or take a walk. Offer to help in the kitchen so you have something to do if you find small talk difficult. It’s perfectly fine to decline events that are too loud or overwhelming for you. Instead, schedule small get-togethers that help you feel comfortable and relaxed instead of stressed and pressured. 

Many people feel alone and isolated this time of year. For members of our community who’ve moved here from other places, this can be an especially lonely time. If you have to work long hours during the holiday season, you may feel stressed, grouchy and disgruntled. If you work or live near someone who has no local family, the greatest gift you can give them may be to invite them to share in your own festivities. If they decline to attend, drop off some treats from your holiday table. Be flexible about when guests can arrive or leave to accommodate the schedules of those who have to work on Christmas or New Years. 

Practicing tolerance, acceptance, kindness and generosity of spirit are some of the greatest gifts we have to give, and they don’t cost a thing. Remember the reason for the season. Hint, it’s not about glamour, extravagance and exhaustion. Do what makes you feel relaxed, connected, and joyful and brings meaning to your life. That will be your best recipe for happy holidays. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Dealing with Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearing if you've been a victim of sexual trauma

This past week’s Supreme Court Confirmation hearings and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony are affecting just about everyone who’s paying attention. However, survivors of sexual abuse, assault or harassment are likely to be affected in a way that those who’ve never been through it may have a hard time comprehending. While the actual statistics about sexual victimization vary, there seems to be a consensus that at least 1 in 4 women have been affected. This means that all of us are regularly interacting with women who may be profoundly distressed by what’s happening. While some survivors may feel validated and empowered because people are finally talking about this, others are feeling triggered and overwhelmed. As they see news coverage and social media posts confirming their worst fears about shaming and disbelief, their trauma symptoms escalate.

If you or someone you care about is struggling, encourage them to seek help. Feeling isolated and alienated only makes things worse. Psychotherapy, support groups or online forums can provide a sense of community and teach valuable coping skills. Recovery from trauma is possible and no one should feel like they need to suffer alone in silence. Setting boundaries on news exposure is critically important. Avoid the news if it’s highly disturbing to you. Reading articles or short summaries may be easier to handle than watching live coverage or video updates. Take care with your social media exposure. You may want to pare down your friends list. If someone on your feed is sharing posts that are upsetting, consider clicking the unfriend button. Alternatively, you can block their posts without actually blocking them. Establish a rule on your own feed that negative or incendiary comments will be deleted as soon as you see them. It’s your page and realizing you have control over what populates it can be powerful. 

If you are struggling, be compassionate towards yourself. Feeling badly about bad things that have happened to you is actually reasonable and healthy. It’s not a sign of weakness. Feeling triggered means that you are hijacked by a flood of fear and panic, intense negative emotions and a loss of the sense of your current time and place. While you may not experience a full-on flashback, the sense of feeling overwhelmed and out-of-control can be hard to manage. If this happens to you, bring yourself back to the present moment. Take deep breaths, focus on something in the physical world, feel your feet against the floor or the wind in your hair, observe the leaves on the trees or play with your pet. Hop on your bike or go for a hike. Listen to uplifting or inspiring music. Use as many of your senses as you can to ground yourself. Deep breaths and a mindful focus on the world outside your head can stop the cascade of fear and panic and help you reset. Your goal is to remind yourself that you are not stuck in the past and that you are safe. Reach out to compassionate friends and family. Don’t turn to alcohol and drugs to manage your reactions. While they may seem like a good short-term fix, they make things worse in the long run.

Reading #metoo posts can create internal pressure to disclose your abuse or harassment history. While there is comfort and strength in community, don’t feel compelled to share your story if doing so makes you uncomfortable. It’s OK to let other’s take the lead if you’re not ready to participate. On the other hand, hearing other’s #metoo stories or experiencing outrage about what you’re seeing onscreen can be a galvanizing force that motivates you to disclose your story. Do whatever feels right to you and be OK with it. Whatever you choose, don’t let guilt and shame define you. You are so much more than your worst experiences.

Whether you have been a victim of sexual harassment or assault, or love someone who has been victimized, take this opportunity to think long and hard about what we want from our relationships, our country and our leaders. Any positive or constructive effort you make is a step in the right direction.  Don’t sit back waiting for someone else to be the change you want to see in the world. And if you only do one thing, remember that your vote counts, so get out and cast your ballot on election day.