Emotional Health and the Holidays

I was recently asked to be on the KPOV radio show, Voices From the Margins, to discuss our emotional health during the holidays. If you’re facing the holidays with less than overall joy and excitement, you’re not at all alone! In fact the host, Shanti O'Connor, sited The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ survey showing that during the holidays 68% participants felt financially strained, 66% have experienced loneliness, 63% too much pressure, 57% unrealistic expectations, 55% found themselves remembering happier times in the past contrasting with the present, while 50% were unable to be with loved ones.

In the interview I address a few ways that you can practice slowing down, be with, and address the discomfort that may have increased during this holiday season. I discussed the most simple of breathing exercises, breathing out more than you’re breathing in, throughout the day. This act of giving your body slightly less oxygen triggers your nervous system to calm down. The effects of relaxation can usually be felt within 5-10 breaths. I suggest people practice remembering to do your “out breaths” when you first wake up, every time you get in your car, every time before you eat, and before you go to sleep. After only a few weeks of practicing these nervous system resets, you should begin to experience an overall reduction of daily stress, it will be easier to calm your system during the exercise, and you’ll begin to be able to effectively relax your nervous system at times of stress.

The other technique I discussed was a very simple Focusing practice. Focusing is a mindfulness-like process of attending to and engaging with the feeling of an experience, what we call the felt sense of something, until it shifts. So if after we do our breathing exercise, we just take a moment to feel into what we’re feeling right then, to that vague and unclear sense of unease or ickiness for example, and allow it to be there rather than trying to change it, we will notice the feeling we may normally call “depression,” “sadness,” “anger,” or whatever else we more habitually label it as, is actually in fact much more intricate and perhaps even entirely different than when we first labeled it. To allow the sense to unfold, we have to be as inviting and curious about the discomfort as possible. This is very much contrary to the messages we get as a culture these days, which is that we don’t actually have to feel discomfort, that we can instead cover it up or distract ourselves from it at any moment with our phones, or within minutes at a drive through. But this practice of being with, allowing, and being interested in the discomfort, can be a profound change in the way that we approach our own experiences. It can also lead to helpful information as to what the next right step might be. Gene Gendlin, who developed Focusing, was known to say that in the problem inherently lies the solution. What follows from that is that if we aren’t comfortable being with the problem, then the solution will be forever lost on us. Being with discomfort may seem overwhelming. But if we approach it as something in us that is sensing this weight, or tightness for example, then it’s implied that this something that is uncomfortable is not all of us but is instead a small part of us, something that is changing, that will not feel like this forever. As we’re with it, allowing it, and engaging with it, it often relaxes and shifts toward a more balanced, calmer feeling. The vague ickiness becomes clearer, not as vague, and has a chance to interact with our witnessing self (adult, integrated, whole self). This integration is in itself healing, as much suffering is caused by us splitting off discomfort, by us resisting it and not allowing it’s natural, forward movement toward health.

Please feel free to contact me if you’re intrigued but would like more information on further resources and/or upcoming workshops. Here’s a daily practice of Focusing that I encourage most of my clients to try…

The 5 Minute Daily Focusing Practice

1) Lead yourself into a relaxed state by feeling your body there, noticing, becoming present

2) Bring your attention to the center part of your body (between your abdomen and throat)

3) With a friendly, curious, allowing attitude, feel what you sense in your body when you sense the whole of that experience/problem. Sense the whole of It, the murky discomfort or the unclear body-sense of It

4) See if you can find a word, phrase, image, sound, or gesture that describes this sense

5) Check with your body that what is describing It seems accurate

6) Sit with It and feel how It changes when It’s being paid attention to, when It’s been described, try to allow It to be whatever It needs to be for however long It needs

7) Find a place for It to go so you can return to It (Picture making a box for it, or a place in the world it can live).

The 10-15 Minute Daily Focusing Practice-

See steps 1-6

7) Try to see from It’s perspective, “what about this makes me so...” Sense how It's feeling from Its point of view. Sensing how It itself feels. If it were a puppy or child, what does It want or need right now, what’s the worst of this, what should happen? What would It feel like if everything was all okay?

8) Check with your body if that seems right, making sure your mind isn’t answering 9) Picture It getting what It needs or wants, allow It to evolve
10) Sit with It and feel how It changes when It’s being engaged

11) Find a place for It to go so you can return to It (Picture making a box for it, or a place in the world it can live).


Click here to listen to the full interview…


Tips from the National Alliance on Mental Illness for managing holiday blues…


May your holidays be filled with calm and ease and many moments of being present in peace.