Real Talk with Alexandra Thompson, part 1: Mental Health & the Holidays
I recently had a chat with the Director and Therapist of Cumberland Counseling Services, Alexandra Thompson. With the holidays just around the corner, I asked her to share some insight on how to navigate the holidays while managing our mental health. Here are some of my key takeaways from our conversation.
How the holidays, especially this year, can affect our mental health:
We are seeing that people are three to four times now, more anxious and more depressed than they were prior to COVID. So it is a huge problem, especially with our teenage population, for people who are single, people living on their own, living alone in homes, it’s just really hard. Now we’re entering into the holidays and depending on what state you live in, you may not be able to leave your home during the holiday. I can only imagine how hard that will be. Then there are some states where it’s really not a good idea. It’s still not a great idea to get together in big groups, especially if you’re not willing to wear masks. And so maybe you’re nervous about what the holidays are going to look like.
How to prepare for the holidays, while taking care of your mental health?
Establish what your limits and boundaries are.
If you’re struggling, if you’re feeling anxious right now about holiday gatherings, get out a journal or a pad or your notes on your phone, and write down what your limits are first so that you know them and you can see them right upfront. If you’re willing to spend the holiday with your immediate nuclear family. Write that down. Are you willing to spend the holiday with your parents and your siblings’ families? Write that down.
Then express that to people in your life who are your safe people and your loved ones.
Write down a couple of things that you are willing to say to them. Like, “I love you, but this year I am not going to celebrate the holidays with anyone outside of my home. It has absolutely nothing to do with you. It’s just, that’s what my limit is this year. Next year, it’ll be totally different hopefully. And, and we’ll have a big, huge celebration next year, but this year that’s what my boundary is. And I love you.”.
Maybe the language around your boundaries to your family needs to be something like, “I want you to know that I love you, but I don’t appreciate you talking to me like I’m paranoid, or there’s something wrong with me. There isn’t anything wrong with me. I’m not paranoid. I’m taking this seriously. And I care very deeply about my health and my family’s health. So I’m not going to be able to celebrate with you, but thank you for inviting me.” And be clear about your limits and boundaries.
Meet with a therapist
I would say if you’re not in therapy or you’re not meeting with a therapist during this time, but you know that when you’re surrounded by your family or when you’re going through holiday seasons, that mood tends to drop, or your anxiety tends to elevate, go ahead and get yourself started with a therapist who can help walk you through it, validating that you have every right to feel that way. Then walk you through good coping skills for the holidays, and come up with a plan, a self-protection plan, with solid boundaries and the limit where I can love myself and love you at the same time.
Coping skills that are helpful during this time
Do anything that brings your nervous system down to a comfortable level.
If you’re noticing that your hands are sweating, your forehead is sweating, your pits are sweating, you’re breathing a little bit more shallow. That lets you know that your nervous system has been elevated. Your amygdala perhaps, is sensing that you’re in some kind of danger and is doing everything, to make sure that you’re protecting yourself. So I would say to pay attention to what’s happening in your body.
Pay attention to what emotions you’re actually feeling.
Not just good, bad, okay. That’s not an emotion. What can be helpful with that is a feelings wheel or a feelings chart. You can just Google it and look something up and keep it on your phone. Some people keep it on their phone, as their backgrounds. So they always have it there easily accessible.
Some possible signs of anxiety:
- Tension in your gut
- Feels like there’s a little elephant sitting on your chest
- You’re noticing that it’s harder to breathe and you’re having to take those deep breaths a little bit more.
- Dry mouth
- Headaches more frequently.
Ways to calm your anxiety during the holidays:
Check-in with your body, with what you’re feeling.
Go to that feelings wheel, get an idea of what you’re feeling. Ask yourself, “what thoughts am I having right now?” “What is it that maybe I’m afraid of, or maybe I’m anticipating what’s going to happen in the future?”
Sit with your emotions for a moment. Don’t run away from it or avoid it.
The best coping skill that we can learn is how to sit with our emotions and how to sit with our unpleasant thoughts or maybe the negative thought or uncomfortable thoughts or emotions and sit with it first.
Once you do that, do whatever keeps your nervous system calm:
- Take a bath
- Sit and look out the window for a couple of minutes with a cup of tea,
- Listen to your favorite music
- Go for a little walk or a jog.
- Unplug from your phone.
- Deep breathing exercise
Breathe in for seven seconds and hold it for seven seconds, breathe out for seven seconds and hold it for seven seconds, and do that three times.
How can families or friends support a loved one’s mental health during the holidays
Learn to be comfortable with hearing the word “no”.
Give someone the right to say they don’t want to spend time with lots of people during the holiday. Don’t push it, don’t ask questions. Don’t try to manipulate them out of there or tell them all the reasons they shouldn’t have said no. When somebody allows you to say no, that is instant validation and instant connector between two people. I’m connecting with you. I’m hearing you, I’m sensing that this matters to you otherwise that no, you know, you wouldn’t have been saying no. I trust you. I love you. And you have the right to say no.
Hold space for what they need to talk about
Then a lot of times what will happen when someone immediately feels validated and trusted and loved, they might start to open up about what this has been like for them. What they’re anxious about for family or the kinds of decisions that they’ve needed to make lately. If they start to open up, all you need to do is simply hold space for what it is that they need to talk about.
They came to you to let you know where they’re at. If they start to open up, just hold space, listen to them. Ask them questions if you want to, but let them just be validated by you and let them just be heard by you rather than putting them in a situation where they feel like they have to combat and kind of prove themselves. This is not the holiday for loved ones to make each other prove themselves or the reason why they’re making the decisions that they’re making. We have the right to make whatever safety decisions we need to make, this holiday.
You can connect with Alexandra on these social channels:
To listen to our full Facebook Live interview, click here.
Read other Real Talk Interviews here.