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Learn how to handle holiday stress effectively

  • Published
  • By Tiz Arnold, Ed.D.
  • Army Resilience Directorate

The holidays can be stressful, maybe this year more than ever. From deciding whether to stay home or attend holiday gatherings, to interacting with family members who potentially push your buttons, to missing lost loved ones, the holidays can stir up a lot of emotions.

Unhelpful reactions to emotions
The first instinct we may have when we feel certain emotions, especially unpleasant ones, is to react in unhelpful ways. For example, when we feel sadness, that emotion may cause us to withdraw from others. When we feel angry, we may get aggressive and say or do things that cause us additional problems, like calling someone a name and putting them on the defensive, triggering an angry reaction.
Another unhelpful reaction to unpleasant emotions is numbing or using some strategy to numb ourselves to the emotion so we don’t have to fully feel it. However, just because we don’t let ourselves feel an emotion does NOT mean the emotion goes away. Only feeling it can do that. Unfortunately, we can’t pick and choose the emotions we don’t want to feel. If we numb one emotion, we numb ourselves from feeling all emotions, including pleasant emotions like love and joy.
Emotions = Data
Our emotions are data. When we ignore emotions, we can’t adapt. Emotions are meant to be felt and they provide useful information.
If we pay attention and are willing to feel the emotion, they tell us the state we’re in, inside and out, and that we need to take some action to deal with the circumstances that are resulting in us feeling the way we do. Our emotions can also provide us with information about what is important to us. Emotionally intelligent people can discern the value being signaled by the emotion they are experiencing.
For example, the anger I feel toward a family member who fails to let me know they planned to travel for the holidays may signal that an important value has been violated (e.g., the importance of communication in our relationship or the importance of caution).
Emotional Intelligence
How can we deal with emotions as effectively as possible so we don’t just survive through the holidays but truly enjoy them?
  • First, recognize when an emotion arises and try to name it as accurately and clearly as possible.
  • Second, avoid the desire to evaluate the emotion. Don’t think of it as good or bad. Instead, think of the emotion as being just a source of information, much like the number on a thermometer.
  • Third, instead of trying to avoid feeling the emotion, lean into it with curiosity. Consider these questions:
  • Why are you feeling this way?
  • What are you telling yourself about the circumstances that are resulting in you feeling this emotion right now?
  • Might this emotion be telling you to take some action so that you feel this way less in the future? For example, if you’re feeling lonely, you could feel less lonely by calling a friend or Family member you haven’t talked to in a while. If you’re frustrated with your spouse, the frustration may be telling you that there’s a tough conversation that you need to have

When emotions feel uncomfortable, it’s for a reason: they’re telling us we need to do something and give us some indication of what action we should take. By allowing ourselves to experience the emotion rather than avoid feeling it, we can handle it more effectively and efficiently, leading to a merrier holiday season.

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