Every year I hear from readers who are dreading the holidays, because it means dealing with their difficult relatives on a level they can avoid the rest of the year. Why is it so uncomfortable, threatening, and miserable dealing with these human beings you're related to? How has Covid made this even worse?
It is important you understand one critical thing about human behavior, we are all programmed toward one subconscious, evolutionary goal, to look for threats and protect ourselves.
Neuroscience experts say, from an evolutionary perspective, [our] ultimate goal is reproductive fitness. This means we have a subconscious tendency toward things like resource acquisition, self-protection, disease avoidance, social affiliation, status, and mate acquisition and retention.
In simple language, you are a walking, talking threat protection system, at work 12/7 to protect and defend yourself.
Experts say "this protection system is highly sensitive to fluctuating circumstances, and is more likely to be engaged when environmental cues signal that [you] are more susceptible to a threat." The Covid pandemic has done this to you. It has increased the perceived threat level that other human beings pose.
For two years, you have been told to stay six feet away, avoid contact, and protect yourself by wearing a mask, which puts a wall between you and others. You are more threatened by other people than you ever were before, and this could be negatively affecting your relationships.
In my opinion, Covid is making you more likely to get offended, feel more protective (selfish) and react more defensively. Add to this the current political divide and all the other divisive issues in play online, and you have a recipe for judgment, intolerance, defensiveness, division, and a lack of compassion and forgiveness. Do you find it harder to forgive others the last two years? Are you holding more grudges?
Covid is also making you more sensitive to loss or feeling taken from. If I asked you to make a list of everything you have lost the last two years (including quality of life, financially, and emotionally) it would probably be a long one. The loss you have experienced is subconsciously putting you on guard to watch for other losses. This means you might be feeling more protective of yourself than you ever have before. Are you more sensitive to mistreatment or more easily bothered by other people's behavior? You might be functioning in a fear of loss state, which is making you more protective than ever and this could negatively affect your family gatherings this year.
Evolutionary psychology also tell us that when we function in a fear state our emotions will drive our behavior more than our logic will. When you are functioning in stress (a fight or flight state) your frontal lobe actually shuts down, which means you are less logical, more emotional, and more defensive.
Take a minute and ask yourself, am I reacting to people with more defensiveness than I did two years ago? Am I quicker to be protective or get offended? Do I find fault, gossip, or talk about the flaws in other people more than usual?
If you can see a pattern of fear driven feelings and behavior in yourself, here are some things you can do to calm your protective tendencies and make your holiday more peaceful:
Remember that ultimately what other people think or say about you doesn't mean anything.
It doesn't diminish your value and it doesn't have meaning or power, unless you believe it does. You can be completely bullet proof if you just see yourself that way. Choose to see all humans as divine, amazing, scared, struggling students in the classroom of life, just like you. When they behave badly, choose to forgive it, because most of the time they don't intend to harm you. They are just functioning in fear.
Don't take anything personally
Everything other people do and say, is driven by their fears for and about themselves. It is never about you. As a matter of fact, all behavior is just a request for love and a sign that the person doesn't love themselves. It a relative says something offensive this year, let it bounce off and hit the floor. Don't let anything stick and whatever you do, don't pick it up and stab yourself with it later. You are in control of how much other people can hurt you.
The way you judge and value others, is the way you will judge and value yourself.
If you fault find and judge the mistakes or flaws in other people as making them less valuable, you will subconsciously see your own flaws as making you less valuable too. You can only love and accept yourself to the degree you love and accept your neighbors. Work on seeing their value as the same as yours, their mistakes and flaws as their perfect classroom and find love for them in spite of their negative qualities and you will find a new level of love for yourself too.
You aren't responsible for other people's happiness.
You are only responsible for your own choices, thoughts, words, and deeds. These are the only things in your control. Allow the universe to be in charge of other people and their behavior. The universe has their perfect classroom well in hand and doesn't need you to stress about it. Let go of feeling responsible for even the people you love. Focus all your attention on choosing your own positive feelings and behaviors, and allow others to be in their perfect classroom journey no matter what they are experiencing.
See whatever happens as your perfect classroom
This means you choose to see everything that happens as here to serve you. You choose to see everything that happens it a blessing in disguise to help you grow and become stronger, wiser or more loving. This means even when others say offensive things, gossip or judge you, it is nothing more than a chance to practice choosing to see yourself as bulletproof.
Be the question asker and give compliments
Instead of dreading the relative's questions, take the initiative and be the question asker at the party. Spend the whole time asking each person questions about themselves and their lives. This means you don't have to talk about yourself and your life at all, which is safer. It also means showing you care and are interested in knowing about and understanding others. Look for ways to compliment and validate others in the room. This creates an atmosphere of building people up instead of tearing them down.
Be the love in the room
Focus all your attention on making others feel important and valued. You cannot do both love and fear at the same time. If you are laser focused on giving love, you won't have the bandwidth to worry about yourself. Spend every minute of the party making others feel comfortable and accepted and your fears will go to the back burner.
Avoid controversial topics
I have a friend who puts a list on the front door of all the topics that are against the rules to bring up at her family gatherings. Politics, religion, vaccination, and the new Covid variant top her list. This takes all the hot topics off the table before the party even starts. Consider having a jar filled with safe "get to know you questions" that driven understanding, compassion, and love instead.
You can use Covid as your excuse to bow out of anything
If you don't think you can handle the family gathering and stay balanced, it's okay to bow out. You have the perfect excuse this year. Just say you might be feeling sick. But, this doesn't excuse you from the work of learning to love each person and yourself at a higher level. This should still be your goal, but if you need more time before stepping into the hot zone, it's okay to practice loving them from afar this year.
Even though you are subconsciously programmed to look for threats and protect yourself, you are also deeply programmed to love. I believe your love is really who you are. Focus this holiday season on being love and making others feel safer everywhere you go.
Notice that whenever human being face calamity, natural disasters, or tragedy, there is an equal upswing of love that follows. Hard times can bring us closer together and increase our capacity for love and understanding or they can bring out the worst.
You have the power to decide what is increased in you this year, more fear or more love. Will you become more defensive or more compassionate? Instead of letting your subconscious decide your response, consciously choose. Decide to make the pandemic increase your compassion and forgiveness this year. You can do this.
This was first published on KSL.COM
SALT LAKE CITY — This pandemic holiday season is unlike anything we have ever experienced before.
It is a well-known fact that depression is linked to social isolation, and it typically increases around the winter holidays anyway, but this year we are adding masks, COVID-19 restrictions, quarantines, stay-at-home orders, family conflicts over gatherings, cold weather, dark days with less sunlight, and end-of-year deadlines. This time of year will be especially hard on people who are dealing with job loss, loss of income, divorce, separation from loved ones or mental health issues.
A School of Public Health study this summer found that the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. has more than tripled the prevalence of depression symptoms from 8.5% of adults before the pandemic to 27.8% over the summer. The numbers during the 2020 holiday season are expected to be even higher.
If you are finding this holiday season is bringing more depression than joy, here are some things you can do to get through it:
Completely change your expectations
Whatever image you had in mind for the holidays, think about dropping that. Instead, plan on this year being unlike any Christmas you ever had.
We've never experienced anything like this pandemic, and we must go into the holidays with a sense of adventure. You may miss the family gatherings you are used to, but if there wasn't an expectation of family gathering it wouldn't matter to you. Decide that this year has no "shoulds" around it. It shouldn't be like any holiday you've had before and remember, and different isn't necessarily bad. Embrace the different and go with it.
Whenever you feel disappointed, remind yourself that it's your expectations causing the disappointment, and you can change your expectations. This is a good life skill to practice during this interesting time.
Drop the traditions and do something different
Don't decorate the way you have in years past. Try something crazy to mark the year as unlike any other. We put decorations in places we have never used them before. Put lights up in weird places and it feels really good.
If you can't have the traditional Christmas Eve or Christmas Day gatherings, do something so totally different. You won't even miss the usual way. Some families are not even decorating at all and are planning to order in Chinese food and eat at a low table in the living room, or something else they have never done before.
Keep counting your blessings
No matter what we have lost this year, we still have so much to be grateful for. Keep focusing on what you still have over what you've lost.
Focus on ways things could be worse
This is a strategy I learned from positive psychologist Dr. Paul Jenkins. No matter how bad things are, there is always a way they could be worse. Focusing on the ways things could be worse naturally makes you feel better about what you have.
Scale back and simplify
Drop all the extra things that aren't necessary. Everyone expects this year to be different, so let this be the year you don't do half the stressful holiday tasks you usually do — unless doing them keeps you busy and happy. Just drop anything that is making you feel stressed, anxious or worse.
Take a break from social media
If seeing pictures of other happy people living lives that look better than yours is making you feel worse, drop social media for a few weeks. It would be good for you on many levels. Instead, write heartfelt email letters to friends and family expressing your love and gratitude for them. Enjoy the letters you get back. They may lift you up more than scrolling through social media ever did.
Limit media exposure
Get some great books to read, do a puzzle, knit or crochet, work on some home improvement project, take up painting, or spend time outdoors. Do things that involve the real world around you instead of binging more Netflix or watching more movies.
Get regular exercise
Exercise will have an immediate effect on your mental and physical health. Even though it's cold outside, you can bundle up and get some fresh air every day. If you spent even a little time exercising daily, you will feel better about yourself on every level.
Avoid drinking or indulging in unhealthy treats
Poor nutrition and too much alcohol always make depression worse. Instead, find some healthy recipes and make good food to enjoy and take the time to savor it. If you are eating healthy meals and getting exercise, you can treat yourself to some special holiday treats and feel good about it.
Get some sunlight
Too much time without sunshine and a lack of vitamin D will affect your mental health. Go up to the mountains — above the inversion — and feel some sun on your face. Talk to your doctor about a vitamin D supplement. If you have seasonal depression, you can also talk to your health care provider about trying light therapy.
"A light therapy box mimics outdoor light," the Mayo Clinic explains. "Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD (seasonal affective disorder)."
Get outside in nature as much as possible
Don't stay holed up in your house for weeks on end. Walking in the park or around your neighborhood daily will lift your spirits and give you needed exercise at the same time.
Talk to a therapist
I cannot stress enough how much this will help you. If you have never tried therapy before, you might be skeptical. But therapy can do wonders to help you process your feelings and the thoughts that come with them.
Create a schedule and follow it
People who have structure to their days and follow a schedule feel more fulfilled and productive, and this helps with depression. Even if you don't have much going on, schedule a time to wake up, cook and eat, exercise, read, watch something (for a limited time) and then move onto other activities. Having structure makes the day go faster too.
Avoid family conflicts
Everyone is functioning in a loss state right now, which means we are all more defensive and more easily bothered. Knowing this, you can recognize that when grouchy behavior shows up it's not really about you. Then you can choose to walk away instead of taking the bait and creating more conflict.
If certain people trigger you more than others, make a plan to avoid interaction with them as much as possible. The one good thing about the pandemic is you can bail on any social gathering and everyone will understand. Use that explanation if necessary to protect your mental health.
Deal with loss by trusting in the good
You can always choose to focus on the growth any experience brings. You can choose to trust the universe that the lessons this year brought us will be blessings in the future; and though things are not as we like them, they are perfect for right now.
Nothing exists that was not created to help us evolve and grow. Remembering this helps us see loss as a blessing in disguise. Sometimes it is a very good disguise, but there will be some good from it.
Arrange social connection via technology
You need connection with other human beings. Contact friends or family members and arrange time to communicate through Zoom, Facetime, or some other video chatting platform.
You need this kind of connection to battle the isolation, so ask for it. Let people know that you really need to talk and ask if could they arrange time for you. It is important that you realize asking for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. Be brave enough to ask for help, friendship or connection when you need it.
You can do this.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.