Breaking the Silence

Website for the American Mental Health Counselors Association's Breaking the Silence initiative to address mental health stigma.

Great Expectations

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By contributing blogger Suzanne Walker.

It’s that time of year again. That time of year filled with many holiday gatherings, things to do, places to go, and people to see. But now we are here and it’s the holiday season and everyone everywhere is wanting, wishing and hoping for a good time. We often have higher expectations for this season than for any other time of the year. The holiday season of “Great Expectations” can leave us feeling impatient, cranky, and — in some cases — depressed.

When daily realities collide with our expectations, stress results. Images, smells, and sounds bring waves of nostalgia and memories of years past. Something as simple as the smell of a pine or cookies fill our minds and take us back to a different place and time. Sometimes these recollections evoke memories, which at times, may be painful. The painful memories may be anchored in that time of year when something difficult happened -a death, a divorce, an unplanned ending. We may still mourn a loved one or miss someone with whom we had a close connection. Sometimes, we may long for a time in our life that we felt may have been easier or less hectic. When our senses are triggered and that trip back down memory lane begins, we can be “flooded” with positive or negative emotions linked to that event. For many, remembering is pleasant and it is easy to share the recollections with others. However, many people, especially those who are recovering from trauma, anxiety, or substance use, dealing with the uptick of activities in and of itself is stressful. Remembering the “old” days may not be the memory lane some people in recovery want to travel down. Learning to cope with or adapt to a mental health or substance use condition requires being focused on living with today’s stressors. Practicing patience, kindness and thoughtfulness with each other can make or break someone’s day during the stress-filled holiday season.

All too often we may not be aware of stress nor acknowledge the cumulative negative toll stress can exact from our lives. Sometimes those symptoms of heightened worry, mounting anxiety, irritability, loss of sleep, weight gain can be signs that stress is hurting you. Your brain and body are trying to tell you something.



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When stress is at its peak, it’s hard to slow down the fast pace and regroup. Try to prevent stress and depression in the first place, especially if the holidays have taken an emotional toll on you in the past.

Researchers and experts recommend taking long, slow and deep breaths, known as abdominal or belly breathing, to invoke relaxation: Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure. Studies show that breathing exercises offer a world of good, from lowering blood pressure, boosting your immune system and of course, abating stress. If you’re feeling stressed, here’s a clever GIF out there to remind you to do what’s absolutely essential: Breathe.


Lower Your Expectations

It’s OK to not be perfect and its OK not to have a Hallmark holiday. It can be very helpful to expect less and learn to go with the “flow”. Trying to plan everything leads to more anxiety trying to control and manage outcomes. The new focus on “mindfulness” teaches us that “being in the moment” helps us appreciate every moment more leading to a more positive mindset and more gratitude.

Acknowledge feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can’t be with loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. Take time to experience feelings and emotions. If we stop trying to force 100% participation in “mandatory happiness”, it may be possible to focus on more today, feeling gratitude and experience relaxation.

Avoid substances as a way to cope. Using substance such as alcohol, medications or others chemicals rarely leads to the true desired outcome of less stress or improved mood. If you are in recovery, seek out other sober supports (AA, NA etc.) and let others help you. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. A community can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others or give to others can be good way to lift your spirits, broaden your horizons and give you a positive sense of purpose.

Be realistic. The holidays are never perfect, just watch the National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and see. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones.

And please, know that is OK to seek help – from friends, a support group or crisis line or a professional clinical mental health professional. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, increase in physical complaints, unable to sleep, ongoing irritability and hopelessness, and unable to do your routine chores. If these feelings are overwhelming, you have thoughts of self-harm, your mental wellness has declined, symptoms increase, or last for a while, please seek help immediately. Taking time for yourself and talking to a licensed clinical mental health counselor can be very helpful.

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