The holidays can be a magical time of year. Whether it’s connected to a spiritual or religious practice or it’s a time to gather with friends and family to connect and reflect on the year. For me it’s a time of magic, one that I felt as a child and still try to connect with today. And there were definitely times and moments that made this connection challenging because of family issues and life dynamics.
For many it’s a time of stress because of finances and wanting to give more than they can. For others the stress comes from ruptures in relationships. Then there are the ongoing challenges in families that are dealing with generations of toxic behaviours, addictions and the effects of trauma. This makes the holiday cheer feel far away and instead it becomes a dreaded time of stress, fear, anger and harm. Some people choose to disconnect from family members that cause harm and hurt to them. Others choose to stay connected and bear the pain that comes with seeing a family that is not aware or unable to take responsibility for their harmful actions. Neither is right or wrong, each option can cause a lot of sadness, grief and shame.
Regardless if for you the holidays are a time of cheer, draining, or you are in a situation that causes stress because of family and personal dynamics, remember: you have choices that can help you take care and find some joy in places you thought you couldn’t.
Too Much, Too Fast, Too Intense
The holidays come quickly and so much is happening so fast, all at once and it can be quite intense. When our bodies are in these conditions it puts our nervous system in stress mode pushing it to sympathetic or dorsal vagal states, depending on how your system is wired.. Sympathetic mode means we are in flight or fight. Dorsal vagal mode means we are in freeze or fawn mode. Both put a tremendous amount of stress on our nervous system and our ability to think clearly, function and feel like yourself. Often when we are in these states long term we get sick, from things like the recurring headache, the common flu to more serious illnesses, like arthritis or multiple sclerosis.
What this looks like during the holiday
Flight mode feels like fear or panic, anxiety, worry and concern. You might be noticing that you are getting stuck in an uncomfortable thought loop about an event that you are going to and feel so panicky that you want to cancel. This is where the new fade of self care can be counter productive. Showing up somewhere anxious can actually be good for you because it helps you overcome the anxiety and teaches your brain and body that you are actually safe.
Fight mode means acting out or feeling rage, anger, irritation, and frustration. During the holidays this could look like you having a short temper and criticizing others or yourself harshly. It could be taking things personally and getting stuck in a flashback because we all know that family pushes those sensitive buttons.
Freeze mode feels depressed, disconnected, helpless, ashamed and numb. There is definitely more temptation during the holidays to indulge in food, alcohol and other substances that help to ease discomfort. Instead, try to work on relaxing the tense parts of your body and doing some gentle vagal exercises. You’d be amazed at how quickly this can have effects!
Fawn mode feels appeasing, like walking on eggshells, and shows up as people pleasing at the cost of your own voice and needs. This could mean saying yes to everything or being the mediator with family and friends. During the holidays this role can amp up especially when there are long standing and recurring disputes in the family.
If you want to learn more about the 4 F Types and the nervous system, then I highly recommend checking out this article as well as the work of Pete Walker in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving To Thriving.
How To Declutter Your Holidays
The most important thing is to be clear on and create boundaries around what you are willing to give, receive and not receive. Knowing what your values are will help you to decide where your boundaries lie. You can say yes to everything but at what cost to your health, wellbeing, happiness and sanity. I find setting boundaries hard! Often we fear others’ reactions because these reactions have real impact and happen when we try to set boundaries. This takes practice and time to feel confident in what we are willing to tolerate and not tolerate. It also means finding unique ways that work for you and the different situations you are in. There is no one size fits all.
Instead you can take a different approach and ask yourself the following by looking at your needs and going from there. Think about what needs to go this year so that your plate isn’t overflowing and you’re not spending January recuperating from too much, too fast and too intense for too long:
What do you need this year? Every year is different. What’s going on right now that is different and may play a role in how, who, when and where you celebrate.
What can you request from those you trust and have loving relationships with where you know your needs will be respected? How can you make gentle requests with those who may not receive them well? How can you prepare mentally for challenging conversations and gatherings and what will you take care of yourself after?
What can you let go of (in all aspects of the concept) to create a balanced, calm, connected and festive time?
And don’t forget one of the biggest stressors of all! Shopping! Think about what people need to replace in their lives so they can let go of old items that have had their day. Also see if giving gifts is really needed or is your time, energy and experience you want to give?
Not everyone is in the same boat and it’s important to remember that life can be tough. Suffering is part of being human and when past painful experiences and trauma continue to affect us today. It’s easy to forget you have a choice and voice. What can you choose that will bring you peace and joy? What do you need to let go of to make that happen? If you don’t love it, let it go.