Martha Sahyouni Q&A

What are some common problems or stressors you have noticed in your work with clients over the holidays in the past and what solutions would you suggest this year due to our unique circumstances?

There are many reasons the holidays can be emotionally difficult, especially in this time of COVID.  Holidays are a time of heightened expectations fed by unrealistic media images of happy family gatherings and perfect holiday parties.  As a result, we often go into the holiday season with an image of how things should be that falls short of how things actually are.  The greater the gap between our expectations and reality, the more likely we are to become discouraged or depressed.  We can prevent this by having more realistic expectations and a more flexible attitude that accepts the challenges and disappointments that are bound to be felt more acutely this year, such as not being able to see our loved ones in person or not being able to do many of our usual celebratory rituals (like attending faith services, going to a museum or a holiday show).  

** Tip:  When you are feeling frustrated or disappointed by holiday changes, try saying things to yourself that encourage acceptance and flexibility like, “This may not be what I’m used to or want, but I can still find joy in this holiday.”

Holidays are a time that really tests our boundaries.  They are a time when we often find ourselves saying yes to things that we really don’t want to say yes to (“Sure, friends with four kids, you can come and stay over for a few days!”) due to a sense of guilt or obligation or due to our fears of either hurting someone’s feelings or having to deal with conflict.  We may take on too much responsibility for others’ feelings and needs and find ourselves going along with things that are not really good for our own emotional or physical well-being or that of our family.  COVID has presented even more challenges in this area as we may not view risk in the same way as other members of our family and may need to find ways to decline invitations or ask for others to maintain their physical distance or wear masks in our presence.

** Tip:  When you are feeling uncertain about a holiday decision, try asking yourself: “Am I doing this only because I am afraid to say no?  What would I do/say if my anxiety was not in control?”

Then there is the problem of memories and triggers.  Holidays are a time when we tend to remember loved ones that have passed away, return to places that evoke thoughts and feelings from the past and spend time with family members we may only see once or twice a year.

This gives our minds and emotions ample opportunity to be reminded of past painful events or difficult family dynamics.  If we are not aware of this, we may find ourselves upset or overwhelmed without realizing how we got there.  This year, due to COVID, our triggers may be different (for example, we may be experiencing feelings of loneliness or emptiness triggered by separation from loved ones due to the pandemic), but we may still find ourselves falling into an emotional funk that we don’t completely understand or know how to handle.  It is especially important at those times to be gentle with ourselves and try to maintain both compassion towards ourselves and a sense of perspective.  It is a time to lean into healthy coping mechanisms like connecting with supportive others (even if this is over Zoom or the phone), doing soothing or relaxing activities and maintaining our sense of humor.

**Tip:  When you are triggered and feeling overwhelmed by painful emotions, tell yourself: “It’s normal to be more emotional around the holidays.  I can be kind to myself about this and remember that I will not always feel this way.”

Finally, there is the issue of substances.  The holidays are advertised as a time to indulge ourselves since, after all, it is supposed to be a time of celebration and joy.  The problem is that for many of us this becomes permission to engage in unhealthy and addictive habits like overeating, drinking or overspending. Unfortunately these activities tend to leave us feeling emotionally or physically hung over and craving for more.  If we are struggling with difficult emotions during the holidays or feeling lonely or isolated due to the pandemic, these unhealthy coping strategies become even more tempting for us.  It can be challenging to figure out how to enjoy the foods, drinks and shopping of the season without overdoing it or relapsing in our recovery from an addiction.  The best remedy for this is to counteract the temptation to use substances with pursuing the deeper meaning and substance of the holiday season.  Get involved in something meaningful to you during this time, whether it be reaching out to a neighbor who lives alone or contributing to a charity.

**Tip:  When you are tempted to reach for an addictive substance or activity during the holidays, ask yourself “How can I put more substance and meaning into my holiday by engaging in an activity that reflects what I believe in (such as spirituality, service, relationships)?”

In short, the holidays can be a time of heightened joy and fun, but also a time of increased emotional challenge.  The pandemic is making the holiday season feel more challenging and confusing than ever.  With the right tools at our disposal, however, we can hopefully address these challenges with greater confidence and enjoy this unique holiday season with both serenity and a sense of meaning and joy.  By asking ourselves a few simple questions and practicing some better coping strategies, we can have a holiday that is not only safe from COVID, but emotionally and mentally healthy as well.

Martha Sahyouni, MA, LCPC

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