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Monday, December 7,2009

Mind games for the holidays

By Jennifer Diebel

Is any season more mixed up than the holidays? Where we feel such gratitude for our loved ones, and wish they would go away? Where we give lavishly and wonder if we can appease our boss with a $10 gift? Where couples cuddle in front of the fire and odd-one-out singles sit at the end of each holiday table, reminded once again that they’re not paired?

How do we handle such an emotional mix? Some go all out with 40 boxes of decorations. Others boycott the whole thing, vacationing to places where no one knows they’re exhausted or miserable. Some drink too much or stay so busy that there’s no down time to feel hurt or disappointment.

The problem with such one-sided coping strategies is that they don’t honor the season’s mix of good and bad. So whatever side of the emotional spectrum we’ve been avoiding keeps knocking, asking us to let in whatever we’re forbidding ourselves or numbing during this time.

So in answer to the mixed up-edness of this season, I’m recommending two holiday “mind games” to help us through, one for the good stuff and one for the bad.

Expanding our joy tolerance

Researchers have found that our brains dedicate increasingly greater numbers of neurons and strength of neural connections to whatever emotions we spend the most time on. So intentionally dwelling on whatever good does occur in our lives this season amid the hard stuff gives us power to expand our capacity to take in and stay in joy longer than we could if we simply let the sadness or frustration have all our attention.

By dedicating some time each day to listing those things that we are grateful for or that brought us joy that day, however small these may be, we can increase our attention to any good things that do come along and expand our ability to feel good more often.

Giving emotion an inch, not a mile

Since the Gratitude Game doesn’t work with negative holiday emotions like sadness, anger, disappointment, loneliness or dread, we’ll need the Containment Game for these.

These emotions exist to tell us that something’s not right. Keeping busy or numb to avoid them doesn’t make them go away. It simply adds the fear of feeling the emotion to the intensity of the emotion itself. To manage these emotions, we really need to hear the message they’re sending, while not letting them take over and cut us off from any joy that comes our way.

We can do this by scheduling a limited time to really feel any emotions we’ve been dodging — 15 minutes a day, two hours per week, or whatever works. During that time, we might journal about the feeling, scream about it, call someone to talk about it, or break some cheap plates while thinking about it — whatever! It is the choice to go in and out of the feeling over and over that gradually decreases our fear of the feeling so that it does not get to take over all of our holiday experiences.

Disciplining our minds to express emotion and then contain it, or to attend to good things that we normally miss in our hurt or frustration is not easy — but neither are the holidays. The hard work of setting aside time for both gratitude and hurt can make the difference between an awful holiday season and an OK one, or an OK one and a great one.

Jennifer Diebel, MA, NCC, is a local psychotherapist. Learn more about her at www.jenniferdiebel.com.

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