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The Holidays are Coming…

Holiday Stress Tips

It’s that time of year again and many of my patients are already anticipating the pressure and emotional turmoil that each of our families bring to the holiday table.

One of my clients just left a session saying, “I love them all but they drive me crazy”. I asked her what behaviors specifically drive her crazy. She talked about her uncle who drinks too much, her mother who is a perfectionist and has to have “everything just right”, making everyone uncomfortable. She talked of her husband not helping enough with her sons on Christmas morning, the cousins who talk to load, each too much, sing off key and the aunt who makes the same horrible cake every year and on and on. We were both laughing at this point as Marie is incredibly funny and of course her Spanish family sounds so similar to my Italian family that I couldn’t help feeling right at home.

I’m guessing no matter what ethnic background you come from you can identify. At one moment when Marie became a bit somber I asked her how it would be to be without her father, who died of a heart attack in July. She began to tear, and started recalling all the Christmas’s of the past, how she wished she could return with him to those days. I asked if her perfectionist mother, her uncle who drinks too much, her aunt who is the horrible baker and her cousins who talk to loud and sing off key were there. Of course she remembers they were all present. Despite their idiosyncrasies her memories were filled with crazy love despite the imperfections of her family.

Marie is feeling more pressure this holiday season because it will be the first without her father. She is less tolerant of the shortcomings of family members because her loss over rides everything else.

As we age the holidays can still maintain their magic but they also consist of many memories we wish we could re-enact. We all lose people and dreams along the way. Maybe were not in the marriage we fantasized about, or maybe some are alone and wondering if there magical Christmas or joyous Hanukah will ever be with a special someone. Maybe we never quite reached the status we desired, or made the money we thought we would, or maybe we, like all other human beings, are forced to cope with the realities of an ever-changing life. Our dreams have been disrupted and the season and our lives are not quite what we fantasized.

Marie realized as we talked about her Dad that eventually a holiday season will come when all these irritating people will not be present, and she may indeed miss them. After all her Dad was expected to be here for many years to come. He wasn’t perfect but he was her first boyfriend and he truly loved family. He taught her to cherish all family members despite their faults, and family to him was not just blood relatives but all those whom he engaged in a genuine relationship.

Let’s all make Marie’s realization our holiday perspective. Life and family seldom go according to our dreams but we can make awesome memories if we give in to the reality of the people in our lives. We all know what to expect, try to accept or at least develop gratitude for the fact that we are here one more year to celebrate togetherness. It takes little ability to get along with people who act exactly the way we desire. True compassion, empathy and wisdom exist when we give up control and develop a loving heart with the family we were given, not the one we created in fiction. Someone your sitting next to this year may not be here next holiday season, and it could be you!
Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.
Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

How to Handle the Complexities of Grief

Parents throughout the world can understand the anger and grief displayed this week by Leonard Gengel, father of 20 year old Britney Gengel who is still missing in Haiti.  Not only is his loss devastating to the core of his being but he was mistakenly told she was found due to faulty intelligence. Leonard and his wife are beside themselves with grief and frustration as are many other families with love ones in Haiti. Of course Haitians themselves are stricken with overwhelming grief as their families are torn apart with no clear hope of a better tomorrow.

How does one cope with such agonizing grief? Is it even possible to overcome such emotional pain?

This morning one of my clients seemed on edge in a group coaching session. He is a mild mannered person, has wonderful character and is always reaching out to help others in group and in his life. Today he related in an uncharacteristic manner as he expressed anger toward me and immediately I thought something must be hurting him that he was not disclosing. As he went on to complain about certain aspects of his life it was obvious that these irritations were not enough to significantly change his typical temperament. Another group member commented, “I think what’s really bothering you is your still grieving your mother’s death, after all it has only been a few months”. At that moment my client began to tear and he began to talk of how he felt seeing his mother wither away to nothing, while she experienced inordinate pain. “I can’t get the images of her suffering out of my mind, I was so angry at being so dam helpless”.

As the session progressed other members shared similar reactions to deaths or losses they had experienced. One member talked of how his sister recently went to his father’s grave and screamed at him for not taking care of himself, he talked of how her anger seems to grow and grow every week. “I thought it was a good thing, getting all this anger out, right Dr. C?”

It is normal to feel anger when we fear losing someone we love or in fact do loose that person. Leonard Gengel’s anger is understandable to anyone who loves their children, just as it understandable that my client’s sister is angered by a father who drank himself to death. We are angered by our helplessness, by our lack of control and by our inability to change a horrendous outcome into something positive.

If embellished too long anger however can be a defense against acknowledging and working through more fundamental feelings. It is also dangerous as it stresses our physiology to an unhealthy point where it can cause heart disease and other life threatening illnesses. It is a natural first reaction, certainly one in Mr. Gengel’s case that can propel him into action until he obtains the answers he and his wife deserve.

Grief is not comfortable for anyone. We all would rather avoid it and the conflicts in our lives if we could. Some people believe if they avoid and turn away it will go away. Don’t fool yourself, it will not. Avoidance may bring you relief temporarily, but the emotions associated with conflict will come out sideways if not expressed directly. When they do emerge indirectly we end up arguing about the toothpaste being squeezed out of the wrong end, and those close to us begin to think we’re being irrational, stubborn and close minded. We are dismissed because the focus of our anger seems irrelevant and superficial.

My client’s irritation with me and earlier with his wife was an excellent example of this kind of avoidance. Why did he choose this direction? Well I don’t think it was a conscious thought, but somewhere within him he felt out of control, helpless, anxious and scared. Expressing anger over minor issues probably gave him a sense of control and relief for a few, brief minutes. Knowing his character I knew he would apologize after our session ended and he did. I told him I took no offense. I knew he was suffering and I told him it’s normal to express frustration  to those we trust when were overwhelmed. He began to tear, lowered his head and thanked me graciously.

If those close to you are grieving give them a little space, don’t be overly sensitive if their mood is off. When one party is in grief and the other is not there it is a relational mis-match for a time. My client’s wife cannot experience the death of his mother the way he does. If he is more aware of his mood going forward, explaining at times that his thoughts of his mother’s illness are haunting him, his mood will likely be more understandable to her. Consequently he is less likely to need to choose a non-related outlet.

What happened in our group session this morning is what needs to happen in anyone’s life if they are going to grieve constructively and overcome the effects of traumatic loss. If you are in the role of the helper expressing understanding, empathy, compassion, tolerance and having the ability to look beyond the surface are essentials to guiding the tormented person to health. If you are the person grieving  you are likely to find yourself experiencing the gamut of feelings, expect your mood to fluctuate and try your very best to not spend time on small irritations, it is a sign that more important concerns are being avoided. When we lose all control we naturally look to things we can control to escape our feelings of helplessness. Acceptance of our limitations is a key part of grieving and in many ways a key aspect to healthy living .We don’t get to choose how people live, we can’t control natural disasters or chronic illness but we can develop the tools that allow us to cope with as much resiliency as possible.

We grieve because we have loved deeply. We recover through love as well. The love of those who care enough about us to tolerate our fluctuating moods allows us to heal the wounds of a broken heart.

Handling Grief During the Holidays

Handling Grief

As we age we accumulate losses in our lives. This time of year often brings back memories of those important people we have lost through death, breakups, divorce and distance. One of my patients just told me she misses her mother terribly at this time of year. “She made Christmas so special and it has never seemed the same”. She went on tell me she should get over this sadness or she’ll become depressed. “After all my Mom has been gone a long time, I don’t want to get depressed so maybe I should just put her out of my mind”.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that experiencing sadness causes depression or a down mood. The opposite is actually true. Experiencing sadness, connecting this emotion to thoughts of the person missed allows us to place our history in perspective. We can then move on with vitality and enjoy the present holiday. Sadness has been called the vitamin of growth; it slows our thinking to allow for reflection and gives us the opportunity to share with those close to us our past hurts. We can then place these emotions where they belong.

If we internalize, as my patient is suggesting, we often don’t realize how much psychic energy it takes to keep our emotions and thoughts to ourselves. Emotions shared with those who employ empathy to understand our experience is a relief and in many ways can liberate us from our sorrows

Try not to view sadness as a detriment to your health but rather as a cue to slow down, listen to your thoughts, express to those close to you so you can regain energy in the process. Allowing yourself to be understood and cared for by those who are truly interested in your welfare is a means of sharing the burden of loss. In the process you will likely feel touched by the love that exists in your life currently.

Remember it takes courage to be vulnerable but those of us who have inhabited the earth for a time realize it is strength of the greatest magnitude, an ability that frees us emotionally to be present with those we love throughout the holidays.

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