Nov 26

Making peace during the holidays

As we approach the holiday season, all the ads are telling us it’s the happiest time of the year. But is it really?

For some, perhaps it is, for many others it isn’t.

A lot of people become more sensitive to things at this time, and there can be many emotional triggers to contend with. Our finances are usually more stretched, we may spend time with difficult relatives, and we often feel we should ‘put on a happy face.’

Maybe your Aunt Mary always criticizes you, or your brother Bob boasts about his successful career and reminds you that you keep switching jobs. Or it may not be anything in particular—you may just experience a general sense of sadness around important issues in your life, or about situations in the world.

In any case, it’s easy for our buttons to get pushed and cause us to spiral into a host of unpleasant emotions.

When emotional triggers occur, the amygdala, a small region deep in the brain that stores all of our intense memories, both good and bad, can get hijacked. Then, in lightening quick time, stress hormones are released and anger or grief can suddenly take us over. The heart races and we want to lash out at others, or turn on ourselves.

It’s the job of the pre-frontal cortex, the front region of the brain, to take in information and decide what to do. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps us manage our feelings.

But in many people, not only those with ADHD traits, the pre-frontal cortex of the brain may not be working as well as it could, and emotional regulation can be difficult.

What can help?

Research has shown that a daily meditation practice can help strengthen the connections between the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala.

Fortunately, doing some form of meditation is easy. It’s a natural ability we all have. With proper instruction and practice, anyone can do it. Even those with ADHD. And even if you only have ten minutes each day to practice, it can make a difference over time.

Here is more information on mindfulness meditation and some brief guided meditations to listen to.

But in the moment a stressful interaction occurs, try some of these ideas:

1.Take time out. With practice you can learn to recognize more quickly when your amygdala is in danger of being hijacked.

At the first sign of intense emotion, excuse yourself and get some distance. Go into another room or take a short walk. Slow your breathing, counting four to inhale through your nose, holding for one, and then exhaling to the count of four through your mouth.

3. Ask yourself what made this experience so painful. What memories does it bring up? Why is this a sensitive issue for you? No one can make you feel bad about something if you don’t feel bad about it yourself. If this is a difficult recurring issue, find a counselor or good friend with whom you can talk.

4. Try to remember that if another person says something hurtful, it probably comes from a deep place of hurt within that person.  Accept yourself for who you are. Know that you are worthy, no matter what someone says.

5. If possible, once you have calmed down, find another moment to share your thoughts and feelings with this person, with compassion and without blame. If it’s not possible to do this, then avoid revealing matters of personal importance to this person. Try to find at least one good quality that you see in the person who is difficult for you to be around. This will give you a greater sense of spaciousness.

6. Journal about the experience. Writing down thoughts and feelings can bring relief and new insights to help deal better with intense reactions the next time something like this occurs.

“Any ordinary favor we do for someone or any compassionate reaching out may seem to be going nowhere at first, but may be planting a seed we can’t see right now. Sometimes we need to just do the best we can and then trust in an unfolding we can’t design or ordain.”

-Sharon Salzberg, O Magazine, The Power of Intention, January 2004