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When the Holidays Don't Feel Merry

The following article originally appeared in my newsletter in December, 2014. It struck a chord with many readers. As we approach the end of 2017 it seems fitting to share again. Enjoy.

This time of year can feel like magic. I love seeing the lights and decorations everywhere. The weather begs for time by a fire and a warm beverage. It is both a time to cocoon and recharge and a time to connect with friends and family. But, it can also be a time of stress and sadness. Missing loved ones, not having the kinds of relationships you wish you had, not having achieved a goal or using the end of the year as a measure of mortality are all examples of a myriad of stress triggers at this time of year. The best way to get through it is to allow yourself to feel the emotion. Don't numb it with alcohol, food, TV, the internet etc. Just allow the feeling to move through you. The emotional state doesn't last very long; research shows that when an emotion is triggered chemicals and hormones are released into the bloodstream and subside all within the span of 90 seconds. For many people the emotion seems to last longer because they keep thinking about the event or situation and re-triggering the reaction. This is known in behavioral psychology as dirty pain. If you ruminate on the situation and continue to play it over and over in your mind, letting it grow bigger, you are stuck in dirty pain. These are the thoughts about how something should or shouldn't have happened or that life is bad. It is the suffering we create in our minds. As an example, let's look at a break up. There is "clean" pain associated with a break up, the loss of that connection and relationship. Where the dirty pain comes in is with thoughts like:

“Why did he leave me? I know he said it was about him and that it wasn't anything that I did. But, what if that isn't true? What if I'm too needy? What if I never find anyone else?”

Recognizing you are stuck in dirty pain is the first step to getting out of it. Research also demonstrates that practicing gratitude and giving back are good ways to turn sadness or depression around. If you feel yourself spiraling into dirty pain, recognize it and shift your focus on to what is good. Celebrate any steps you take, no matter how small. Make time for you. See where you can help someone else. Shame and vulnerability researcher, Dr. Brene Brown says that you can't numb the bad feelings without diminishing the good. So, let the negative emotions run through and then shift your focus. I'm not talking about positive affirmations that you don't believe. Instead take a look at what is good in your life, celebrate it and drink that in. Most of all, be patient and kind to yourself. Happy Holidays to you and yours.

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