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Resolve to be More Resilient this Holiday Season and Beyond

Remember This Holiday Season; the Word Wellness Begins with We.

“Rats, nobody sent me a Christmas card today. I almost wish there wasn’t a holiday season. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”

Charlie Brown is not the only one to have wished there wasn’t a holiday season.

In 2008 the American Psychological Association (APA) did a survey, and found that 8 out of 10 people reported they anticipate stress during the holiday season. For many of us, the holidays are a wonderful time of year when we share joyous times with loved ones. For some, the pressures and personal demands of the season are significant, and for others who suffer from mental health, addiction, traumatic stress or grief, the holidays may even be a dangerous time.

No matter where you may find yourself in the above categories, most of us want to be resilient enough to adjust to whatever comes our way.

Resilience can be defined many ways, but it is generally the capacity to adapt and overcome. It is the ability to adjust to difficult or challenging life experiences. It allows us to bounce back, recover and adjust from misfortune or change. We all have the capacity to build resilience.

Donald Meichenbaum, Ph.D. has outlined characteristics of resilient individuals in his book “Roadmap to Resilience.” Resilient people reach out to others and bolster positive, supportive relationships. They savor positive emotions and accept that they will have negative ones. Their coping style is task-oriented, and they are flexible thinkers. Resilient individuals also create meaning and purpose in their lives.

Harriet Lerner Ph.D., in her book entitled “Fear and Other Uninvited Guests”, described anxiety as a mean trickster. She goes on to talk about how anxiety can trick you out of the “now”, as we obsessively replay the past and worry about the future. It tricks us into feeling helpless and self-doubting. It cranks up our capacity to be judgmental and critical with ourselves and others. These things hardly promote or enhance the holiday Spirit.

Behavioral health literature refers to three different types of stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. Positive stress leads to mild to moderate, short lived reactions, brought on by things such as public speaking, test taking, competition, or driving in Erie after a lake effect snow. Positive stress is even considered useful in building resilience. Tolerable stress is more serious, yet still temporary, often buffered by supportive relationships, and possibly triggered by such experiences as the death of a loved one, loss of a job, a serious accident or injury. Toxic stress is the kind of stress that occurs over a prolonged period of time in response to traumatic situations. It activates our survival brain (think fight, flight or freeze). This kind of stress has a profound impact on a person’s health and effects how the brain works. Often the best way to overcome toxic stress is with professional intervention.

Focusing primarily on positive and tolerable stress, there is a lot of solid advice about coping with holidays and our anxieties. Yes, we should absolutely pay attention to how much we sleep, eat, exercise, plan ahead, budget, volunteer for others, set limits, be mindful of our feelings, express gratitude and breathe. I know that I have room to improve in all of these practices.

A mentor of mine said that we often get ourselves into trouble by over-attending or under-attending to things. This may have significant relevance for how we approach the holidays and our ongoing stresses. If we have clear priorities, we are more likely to attend to the relationships, activities, responsibilities, spiritual needs, and hobbies that most bring us peace of mind. We will also attend to them in the right dosage. If we are confused or somehow stuck someplace we’re not sure how we got to, then reaching out for support, guidance and help is a worthwhile response. Unfortunately, partnering with others to help ourselves is perceived as a blow to our self-sufficient egos and independent identities. But, it is much more healthy and normal than most of us believe.

It has also been said that many things crumble under the weight of expectation, which brings us back to anxiety and Dr. Learner. Unrealistic expectations of yourself and others can also lead to regret of the past and worry for the future. Next year will no doubt bring its share of anxiety; let’s hope and pray it goes a little easier on us than this year. In case it doesn’t, learn more about and practice resilience. Work toward making yourself and your community more resilient. Be kind, and don’t be too anxious about reaching out to others for a little assistance along the way. It has been quite cleverly pointed out that the word illness begins with “I” and the word wellness begins with “WE”.

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