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Coping With Holiday Stress: Positive Emotions to the Rescue

December 03, 2020

Saundra Jain, MA, PsyD, LPC, shares coping skills and practices which clinicians can use to cope with stress during the holiday season and other challenging times.

Dr. Jain is a member of the Psych Congress Steering Committee, a psychotherapist in private practice, and Adjunct Clinical Affiliate at The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing.


Read the transcript:

Hi, everyone. My name is Dr. Saundra Jain. I'm a member of the Psych Congress Steering Committee and our Psych Congress family.

Can you believe it? We are already well into the holiday season. Our holiday get‑togethers, they're going to be quite different this year due to COVID‑19. That's why I'm excited to be with you today to talk about coping with holiday stress.

Honestly, who can't use a few good coping skills? These skills and practices that we're going to be talking about are great for our patients, but what about all of us as practicing clinicians?

I imagine that all of us encounter stress, whether it's holiday‑related or just regular life‑related stress. 2020, it's been a year like no other. Granted, we need coping strategies for way more than just the holidays. This year has seen many tragic events in the space of politics, racial disparity and social injustice, natural disasters, and, of course, COVID‑19.

We all know that these things have repeatedly and fiercely tested our resilience. In spite of the many horrible events, we're doing our best. 2020, believe it or not, has had some bright spots. Let's talk about COVID‑19 and highlight some of those bright spots.

First, we found a way to deal with social isolation by connecting on Zoom and other virtual platforms. Even for those of us who have tech phobia—that would be me—we've learned how to navigate technology pretty darn well. Many of us have switched to telepsychiatry due to COVID‑19, and we've shown remarkable flexibility and a willingness to adapt in the face of extreme adversity.

Secondly, for those of you with school‑aged children, what a successful pivot to online schooling. Certainly not easy, but you made it happen. Many of you did it while working from home.

Some of us have used the time during sheltering in place to cook more, to eat better, and to even create an at‑home exercise program. There may still be days when we veer off course and turn to junk food or we binge watch whatever catches our attention, but remember, this is all about balance and self‑compassion.

On a personal note, 2020 welcomed me into my sixth decade of life. Just a fancy way of saying I turned 60 this year. It's been a time of reflection and gratitude in spite of these challenges. I've learned to slow down and to savor even the smallest of things. Now, don't get me wrong. It hasn't been easy, but I believe that we're all doing our best.

What about you? What bright spots exist in your life? If you haven't thought about it, please do. You may really be surprised by what you find. I know that we haven't all experienced 2020 in exactly the same way. For many, it's been beyond description in terms of tragic and life-changing. I do recognize the uniqueness of each of our circumstances.

Today, let's talk about how we can use positive emotions to not only survive these challenging times but to thrive in the face of these many sources of stress, including holiday stress. Let's explore two positive emotions—gratitude and awe—as effective ways to manage stress.

Now, you may be wondering, how can positive emotions possibly help me deal with stress? Great question. I want you to know positive emotions, they're not just warm, fuzzy feelings. In fact, they're backed in hard science as effective ways to reduce inflammation, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve our overall wellness.

Why not embrace positive emotions as effective coping strategies? Remember, we can apply all of these skills and practices to holiday stress or stress in general. We can use them with our patients and for ourselves.

Let's talk about gratitude. Gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful, the readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. How do we put this into action? I have a few suggestions for you.

Letters of gratitude. Try writing a letter of gratitude to someone that's made a difference in your life. Maybe a letter to a former teacher that positively shaped your life. If you're struggling with holiday stress, you may want to include a note of gratitude in your holiday cards, or you can even send a holiday letter of gratitude to someone special.

Here's another gratitude practice, and that is a gratitude journal. This practice is quite simple. All you have to do is jot down a couple of things during the day that you appreciated or that you're very thankful for. Remember, your list does not have to include a bunch of major events. It can be as simple as "I enjoyed a cup of coffee this morning" or "I took a walk after lunch."

This is a great way for us to re‑train our brains to focus on positive things. How might this practice apply to holiday stress? Well, we all know that the holidays can generate worries about gift giving and difficult family relationships.

Rather than focusing on previous problems during the holidays, a gratitude journal may really help all of us focus on positive holiday memories and help us reduce our level of stress.

All right, let's turn our attention to our second positive emotion. That is awe. Awe is an overwhelming feeling of reverence or admiration that's produced by something grand, or sublime, or extremely powerful.

Can you remember a time when you felt a sense of awe? Maybe taking in the beauty of a blue sky or watching the sun rise or set. I have a few ways to share with you that you may want to try to experience awe, but remember, you may want to personalize these practices. This will give you a few ideas.

Take a walk in nature. Some call it an awe walk. Do your best to avoid distractions like listening to music, checking your email, or texting. Simply put, no electronics during your awe walk.

Do your best to be as fully present as possible. Remember, this isn't a way to get steps or to burn calories. It's a way to experience nature, the trees, the flowers, the birds. Pay attention to sounds, physical sensations, and any thoughts or emotions that may bubble up while you're out on your awe walk.

You can also experience a sense of awe not only with nature but with both music and art. All you'll do is practice the same elements that we just talked about with the awe walk. Be present. Avoid those distractions. Notice any physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions or sounds that may surface while you're listening to music or viewing some form of art.

Remember, if you feel your stress level rising in response to the holidays, simply pick one of the awe practices, a walk, music, or art. Hey, give it a try.

Let's say you experience a lot of family conflict about getting together for the holidays, and you feel that your stress level is going through the roof. Try heading outside to enjoy an awe walk. Focus on your surroundings. Do your best to avoid any and all distractions.

Be fully present. Pay attention to the sounds that you encounter, any physical sensations, those thoughts or emotions that may show up during your walk. Acknowledge whatever you encounter and then gently return back to your walk, taking in all the beauty of nature. You may find that your holiday‑related stress has diminished, if not, disappeared.

I want to let you in on a little secret. We are what we think. Too much time with negativity leads to increased stress. All of these practices do a great job of shifting our attention to positive emotions and away from the negative. Why not opt for positivity and less stress?

I know that capitalizing on positive emotions, it takes some time, some patience, and practice to develop. It's so easy to get distracted, but if that happens to you—and most likely it will—just recognize the thought, the emotion, the sound, or the sensation and then go back to the awe activity and enjoy the experience.

Whether we're dealing with the tragedies of 2020, the uncertainties of COVID‑19, or the stresses associated with the upcoming holiday season, please know there are things that we can do to cope better and to manage our stress levels better.

When you're feeling stressed out by the holidays or whatever feeds your stress monster, remember, you can use positive emotions like gratitude and awe to improve your overall sense of well‑being.

Here's to a holiday season that's filled with positivity and an infinite supply of love and joy. Thanks for joining me today. Be well, my friends.


See more videos with Dr. Jain:
A Body Scan Meditation
Coping During COVID-19: The Power of Wellness
A Mindfulness Meditation


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