Stress around the holidays, including the loss of a loved one, shared child custody schedules and financial worries can be overwhelming any year, but 2020 is not any year. This time there are added (major) stressors, including pandemic fears that will keep us apart from some loved ones, as well as national issues like racial unrest and a polarizing presidential election.
If this article is bringing you down, keep reading. There’s good news.
There are benefits to what we call negative emotions. Stress, anxiety, sadness and fear are part of living a life of meaning, according to Adam Dell, a clinical psychologist at the Notre Dame Wellness Center.
“Negative emotions are signposts of significance in our lives,” Dell said. When we feel strongly about something, it is because we care deeply about it.
Experiencing feelings like fear, anxiety and stress also means something or someone is part of our values.
“We live in a bizarre world where social media, television and billboards might tempt you to believe that feeling good is the highest aim in life,” Dell said. “Perhaps a more realistic, authentic way to live is turning away from always wanting to feel good and turning toward becoming good at feeling.”
For example, we can experience uncomfortable feelings, but they don’t have to ruin our day (or holiday). We can learn to move on from them.
Facing and naming these emotions are first steps to healthy coping. Separating the feeler from a feeling or the thinker from a thought decreases the power of a negative emotion or thought and leads to self-compassion and changes in our behavior that improve situations, Dell said. These are the ingredients to a holiday season of acceptance, contentment and gratitude.
Dell practices strengths-based therapy and values-based living with his patients at the Wellness Center. It’s therapy that centers on hope. Instead of focusing on problems, Dell encourages behavior changes by focusing on the strength and resourcefulness of patients. His work is informed by evidence-based therapy, as well as his own experiences of adversity that include military duty and deployment with the U.S. Air Force.
Feelings are not good or bad and they are not directives, Dell emphasized. We don’t have to control them or make them positive, we just have to acknowledge them and step away from them, according to the strengths-based philosophy.
Susan David, a professor at Harvard University and author of “Emotional Agility,” and Steven Hayes, psychologist, researcher and professor at the University of Nevada, pioneered the therapy modes Dell relies on to help his patients.
Restlessness required for resilience (Yes, really!)
In the 1990s, psychologists promoted the goal of a high degree of self-esteem and how to get there, according to Dell. “The research is out on it,” he said. “Although they were sincere, they were simultaneously sincerely wrong. Having an inflated self-esteem doesn’t correspond to reality most of the time.
“When we admit we are imperfect (like everyone else) – the opposite of unwavering self-esteem – we can be open to self compassion. It may not be a coincidence that Jesus himself started his most famous sermon with the idea: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
And when we realize that we are not our feelings, Dell said, we have a choice to separate from them and therein lies power and resilience.
Acceptance through present-mindedness
Dell’s recommendation for getting past negative emotions includes the first step of accepting all feelings, including the uncomfortable ones. Next, detach from the feelings – as the thinker – to recognize that our feelings are not fused to who we are. Then, focus on the options or actions that emerge in any given situation to move forward.
Dell understands this from many years of longing to be a parent, and now being away from his 16-month-old daughter, Addie, much of the working week.
“For those precious 30-60 minutes (before bedtime), I can hold her, I can look into her eyes, I can sing songs with her and be very, very present. My sadness can be translated into being present.”“I can stew, I can feel sorry for myself, I can feel guilty about not being with her much on those days. Or I can realize that I ache because I love her and being her daddy is the highest thing God will ever call me to do,” Dell said.
Dell suggests that rather than push down negative emotions (called “bottling”), name them, address them and take small steps to cope with them (as small as going for a walk around the block or being present for our children). The small steps help with the opposite of bottling, called “brooding” in this therapy language.
“Facing, accepting those feelings and then doing something with a focus on the present can help,” he said.
The positive in the negative
Is there possibly an upside to having so many complications in the world as we enter into the holiday season? Dell thinks so.
No matter how disrupted the holidays feel, the difficulty can be helpful to creating meaningful experiences.
“These difficult times, rife with painful and uncertain stimuli, invite us all to embark upon growth and opportunity. We can pursue meaning even in the context of adversity.”
Well-being ideas to try this holiday season
Based on the therapy Dell practices with his patients, here's a few tips to help manage the additional stress of this 2020 season:
Make decisions grounded in values
Ask yourself, ‘Does this choice lead me toward or away from my values?’ This can help identify your values and simplify choices.
“These unprecedented times invite us all to differentiate between our ‘have-to’ goals, related to obligations, and our ‘want-to’ goals, tied to beliefs,” Dell said.
Practice generous (self) compassion
Separating ourselves from uncomfortable feelings leads to acceptance and acceptance leads to self-compassion.
“Don’t aim for perfection,” Dell said. “Aim for choices defined by your values and apply self-compassion along the way.”
Find the cheer through gratitude
Mindfulness is not always about meditative practices. Being mindful and/or present might be as simple as considering why we are grateful. We can grow gratitude through prayer before meals, keeping a list on the refrigerator, or like the Dell family, putting slips of paper into a Mason jar for each year with the date and blessing.
“Practicing gratitude does not mean circumstances are perfect and there is no stress. Finding gratitude in the midst of adversity is an authentic, balanced way to perceive the self, relationships and the world,” he said.
To reach Adam Dell for an appointment at the Wellness Center, call 574-634-9355. For information and his availability to speak about mental well-being to your staff, team or a group, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.