Christmas. It’s laden with heightened emotion and expectations, isn’t it? Expectations derived from idealized movie depictions, our own Christmases past, and yearnings for future Christmases. All driven by emotion. Drop challenging family and relationship dynamics into the mix, and the emotional temperature gets hotter again.
The power lies within you to cope, however. You have innate resources designed to enable you to get your needs met; resources that can help you manage your emotions and expectations and not only survive this Christmas but perhaps even thrive.
These 12 tips show you how:
1. Make a plan
Don’t expect this year to be different, make a plan and make it different. It will give you a sense of control. Digest the following tips. Choose the ones that apply most for you. Use them to manage your baseline stress, frame healthy expectations, and deal with emotional peaks. Create a back-up contingency. Rest secure in the knowledge that you’re taking charge and minding yourself.
2. Emotion makes us stupid
The bigger the emotion, the less clear our thinking – the neural pathways from our emotional brain to our higher intelligence actually shut down when emotions are high. Irrationality, volatility, and reduced control are the results. Introduce alcohol into the mix and it’s combustible. Commit to manage your own emotional responses. Regardless of provocation.
3. Recognise your signs
Difficult relationships are one of the biggest drivers of emotional arousal and stress response. How does your body feel when you get very emotional and stressed? How do you think? How do you behave? Know your first signal in order to intervene early.
4. STOP Stress before it stops you
One of best ways to maintain control and reduce emotional arousal is to focus attention. The following breathing technique will automatically lower the stress response in the moment, and prevent stress build-up through regular one-minute or five-minute-long practices.
*Focus on your breath
*Breathe deeply (from your stomach)
*Make your outbreath longer than your inbreath, Count to 11 on the outbreath, and 7 on the inbreath.
5. Revise unrealistic expectations
Re-frame your expectations of a challenging relationship. Let go of what-could-have-beens. You can’t put back the clock. Be open to a difficult dynamic changing. And let go of any myth that everyone else is steeped in bliss. Such an attitude only breeds isolation. You are not alone in facing challenges at this time of year.
6. What we expect is what we get
We only notice what’s congruent with our reality. You know when you’re pregnant; you suddenly ‘see’ loads of pregnant women? That. Expectations also blind us to any eventuality that contradicts them. If we expect relations to be sour and rehearse that in our imagination, we will deepen the neural groove and thus increase the likelihood of that behaviour coming about. Imagination is a reality generator. Use it to visualize a positive outcome.
7. Cede control
We cannot control other people. Thinking we can is a fallacy. But we can choose how we ourselves will behave - once we manage our emotional arousal. Relax yourself. Then visualize and rehearse yourself behaving calmly and maintaining control. This will set up a new neural pattern and will help you achieve it in reality.
8. Focus attention outwards
Too much concentration on ourselves quickly devolves into self-absorption, and, potentially, to depression. Instead, focus outwards on others, actively listen to them and attend to them. It’ll help you forget yourself, engender greater perspective, and thus lower emotional arousal.
While the thought of exercise may be anathema in the season of over-indulgence and mince pies, a good cardio-vascular workout will raise endorphins and make your neurochemicals smile. Start now and exercise for at least 20 minutes per day. It will help lower your baseline stress levels.
10. Defuse tension
If you find yourself in a situation in which the emotional temperature is rising, and you can feel that stress response kicking in, take action.
• Remove yourself physically and go for a walk/run.
• Remove yourself mentally, by practicing 7/11 breathing. (See point 2).
• Laugh. If there’s no comedian present, choose a TV comedy and nudge open everyone’s sense of humour.
• If you’re sad, show yourself compassion. Facilitate its expression safely. Choose a soppy movie and weep it out – in privacy if appropriate or necessary.
11. Mind yourself
Your first duty is to mind yourself. Have a contingency in case the situation becomes untenable, Cut visiting times if necessary. If the visitors are in your house, have an escape valve at the ready. (Hospitable neighbour or friend?)
12. Search for meaning
Meaning is an innate need. It builds tolerance and resilience. Know where your sense of meaning will come from this Christmas: Being needed by others; the season having a religious resonance for you; stretching yourself to reach a physical, mental or artistic goal? Make a conscious decision to seek meaning out and be nourished.
When all is calm, all is bright – or at least potentially brighter.
Cathriona Edwards is Psychologist & Human Givens Psychotherapist, contact: email@example.com
Cathriona is a psychologist and Human Givens psychotherapist. She works at the Dublin Human Givens Centre, Dun Laoghaire, which offers individual, couple and family therapy alongside courses in emotional health. She also sees clients in Aesthetic Surgery Ireland, Ballsbridge. She, along with colleagues, will be giving a free public talk entitled Build Resilience – Cope Better in the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire, at 7.30pm on Wednesday, 15 January 2014. Further details available on the website www.dublinhumangivens.ie