Perhaps the upcoming holiday season fills you with dread, anxiety and anticipatory stress rather than joy, light and gratitude. Many people struggle with issues at this time of year, generating a torrent of letters to Dear Abby seeking advice on holiday blues. Families try to balance where to have celebrations, who to invite, what to do with distant, poorly-behaved relatives, step-relatives, exes. All these pressures to resolve family and relational issues seem to peak at the holidays. They put more pressure on everyone rather than allowing us to simply enjoy being together.
One stress-busting technique that might be useful this holiday season and throughout the year is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is something you can do on your own or with the guidance of a professional counselor.
CBT uses the principle that the thoughts we hold, how we feel and how we behave are intertwined. One leads to another. So if we start with an automatic negative, inaccurate or distorted thought, our emotions and thus our actions will follow in lock step.
CBT is done in several steps:
1) Examine and reflect on the situation that created automatic negative thoughts (ANTs)
2) Consider the source of the negative thought and ask if it is true
3) Challenge your thinking and reflect on the likely outcomes of continuing such negative thoughts
4) Develop an alternative inner dialogue or script that is based on Positive Energizing Thoughts (PETs) that are affirming and more reality-based
5) Take action by continuing to focus on PETs instead of ANTs
For example, instead of a series of automatic negative thought (ANTs) such as:
• Oh no, here come the holidays.
• I already feel overwhelmed both at work and at home.
• There isn’t enough money for presents.
• I expect that all my family will have a perfect experience.
• We never get along.
• It’s just too much.
By examining these ANTs, one can challenge them. Are these really outside stressors or are they self-imposed. Instead of expensive presents, maybe some simple tokens, homemade cooking or crafts might be as good and more appreciated.
So, an alternative script or PET might read:
• I am grateful and look forward to the holidays as a break in my routine, a chance to enjoy life from a deeper level of sharing and companionship.
• While not everything will be perfect, I know that I will do my best to make it a wonderful time for friends, family, and myself.
• I anticipate a time filled with love, peace, and true joy.
• Holidays are about sharing love, not about giving and receiving material things.
• We will have a wonderful holiday season.
• I am confident that I can cope and thrive during this holiday season.
Repeating such positive energizing thoughts to ourselves can energize rather than stress and depress. This process creates more realistic expectations and provides an emotional state to elevate true holiday joy.
So this holiday, choose gratitude to help you discover inner peace and joy.
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.