Advertisements, television commercials, greeting cards and comments wishing Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas (Kwanza, Hanukkah) and Happy New Year may be enough to send you over the top and diving straight for a shot of alcohol or your drug of choice just to cope. This year, try something entirely different. This year, take proactive steps to manage the holidays with the least amount of stress and the most amount of success. For help with this difficult time of the year — particularly for those struggling with alcohol or drug use and their family members — we turned to Beverly D. Flaxington, human behavior coach, Psychology Today columnist, and author of “Self Talk for a Calmer You” for some practical tips you can use right now. According to Flaxington, there are four main aspects of taking charge of your mental health and well-being this holiday season. These involve:
- Level of predictability
- Working on positive self-talk
- Having a toolkit ready
- Remembering where you want to be post-holidays
Level of Predictability
There is a level of predictability about the holidays. “We know when Thanksgiving comes, when Christmas, Hannukah and New Year’s are going to be,” Flaxington says. “They’re the same time every year.” The first step to dealing with the stress and anxiety of the holidays, then, is to take steps to prepare your toolkit, to do something differently this year. Here’s what typically happens: People just tense up. They stress, worry about it, and fall into similar patterns. Flaxington recommends that the first step in being proactive this holiday season is to choose to do something differently, to put some tools together to get through holidays. “If you have a substance issue, your tendency may be to drink or smoke pot, self-destructive behavior that relaxes you but you know is going to end up being more difficult for you on the other side.” Here is where you need different options, Flaxington advises. “Choose to stay away from situations that cause you stress. It may mean turning down a party invitation, for example. It may mean that you don’t get together with a family member who makes you upset. Protect yourself and stay away from any situation that you know is going to be destructive or potentially destructive for you.”
Work on Your Own Positive Self-Talk
The next step is to start to prepare approaches you can use and call upon when you get into difficult situations. Practice positive self-talk. Write out some things that will be healthier for you, that are going to be more beneficial to you. “What often happens is that we fall into the negative pattern, and instead of saying ‘I made a mistake, this is a different day, I’m going to do things differently,’ we beat up on ourselves about our inability to make better choices, Flaxington says. The healthier way to go about it is to have that positive self-talk. Say to yourself, “This is a different point in time. I can make different choices this year. I do have self-confidence and self-esteem to hold myself in a different place instead of giving into something that’s negative for me.” Whatever those words, sentences, or mantras are that are meaningful for you, prepare them in advance, integrate them, get them into your belief system. “In this way, you are changing the dynamic from being worried about the holidays to 1) I’m being proactive. I’m preparing for it. 2) I’m using more positive language toward it.”
Have Your Toolkit Ready
Now for step three: Have your toolkit ready before holidays come. What is in your toolkit? There could be some stress management techniques, like learning how to take three deep breaths or choosing to take a walk when the feeling comes upon you that you really want to reach for that drink. It could be saying, “Excuse me, I really need to use the restroom,” when you’re with people and you feel tension or it gets uncomfortable. Your personal toolkit may contain a variety of things, depending on who you are, but the main point is to know that you have things that you can choose to do when the temptation, that knee-jerk reaction comes upon you. Also, says Flaxington, have a plan in advance of what it is you might be able to do in different circumstances. “Make a list. None of this is a surprise. We know where we get in trouble.” She lists the example of the company party where a waitperson comes over with a tray of champagne. You’re standing with three colleagues. They encourage you to have a glass of champagne. That’s one of those situations where you should ask yourself, what’s my plan? My plan could be to say that I’m allergic to champagne, I’ll have to pass. It could be taking the glass and quietly setting it down and not touching it again. A lot of it is going through some of the scenarios and coming up with what could be some different choices that you’re going to make. Much of this could be in your self-talk is as well: “I make good choices. I don’t get myself in situations that could be harmful to me. I only choose the path that’s going to be supportive for me.” Sometimes, if you’ve got the tools to help you, that is enough to make you think, “I don’t want to go there again. I know what that morning after looks like and I don’t like it.”
Personal Anxiety Triggers During the Holidays
With the holidays fast approaching, we start to think about what’s coming. It’s almost as if we give up before the holidays get here because we know or fear that “it’s just going to be the same as always.” According to Flaxington, that’s why it is really important to start very early before the holidays hit, to give you a different form of that self-talk. Not that it has to be rose-colored glasses, Pollyanna-ish, but just to be neutral, to say things like, “This, too, shall pass. This is a point in time. The holidays come every year and then they leave. This doesn’t define my life.”
“One of the issues is that people think that it’s a choice between being very fearful of it, having anxiety and worrying about it or going to the other extreme and thinking they’ve got to be joyful, they’ve got to be upbeat,” Flaxington continues. “My contention is that there’s something in the middle: an approach to take some of the emotional sting out of it. How do you do that? Flaxington says that you can just remind yourself that these days can be more emotionally charged, that there are lots of people around us during the holidays who may be emotionally charged. You don’t have to give into that. “It’s not to feel as though you’re telling yourself something that you don’t believe, but just to have that mantra, that refrain, so that when you experience that anxiety, the trigger (sweaty palms, insomnia, stomach ache) that sets you off, that’s when you want to kick in your calming self-talk. “This is OK. I can get through this. I’ve gotten through the rest of them and I am going to get through this one. I can make different choices. I am in charge.”
Support from Others
Flaxington is enthusiastic about receiving support from others during this fragile holiday period. “If you have somebody in your universe that you feel comfortable with, that’s huge. This is someone you are able to call, send a text or email to say that your negative self-talk is kicking in, or you’re feeling anxiety, or experiencing triggers and you need help. Have that person have some of the mantras, sentences – ready for you:
- Remember, this is a point in time.
- Remember, you are in charge.
- Remember, you do make good choices–You make good choices throughout the year. You can do it through the holidays, too.
“It’s almost like you have that person outside to remind you how you want to talk to yourself, what kinds of things you want to say.” Flaxington stresses that there is an important nuance to keep in mind here in that you don’t want to have someone to whom you express all the anxiety and you wind up getting into the spiral together about how stressful the holidays are. You want that safe person who will snap you out of it when you reach out for help. That safe person could be your 12-step sponsor, your therapist, your partner, a close friend. Carry your 3×5 cards with your positive self-talk with you, because it’s not always practical to have that safe person available. “If you get into a situation where the anxiety is starting to come or that this is difficult for you, excuse yourself, go into the bathroom, and get yourself together. Break away from the situation if the intensity builds. Make a physical break. Go in the bathroom, by yourself, and read those cards over and over.” Work with someone else on what to say. Sometimes someone else can have some good ideas. If you are not in a position where you can call your sponsor, maybe the two of you have worked out some things on 3×5 cards and you can read them to yourself and remind yourself what you really want this to be.
Final Step: Always Remember Where You Want to Be — After the Holidays
Finally, Flaxington advises, you want to be thinking about what place you want to be in when the holidays are over. “Do I want to feel good about the fact that I had these tools and I got through it or do I want to have the sense of starting over with regret?” Again, you’ve got to be prepared and have the toolbox, but that’s where this other person can be really helpful. It’s kind of that morning-after thing. “You’re going to wake up tomorrow. How do you want to be? The holidays are right around the corner. Are you prepared to get through them intact and on track with your sobriety? Try these tips for a healthier and more beneficial approach this year.