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These five therapy skills can help you get through 2021's stressful holiday

Drs. Gillian Galen and Blaise Aguirre, who specialize in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, lay out skills that can help you be less emotionally reactive this holiday season.
Image: A woman sits by a Christmas tree
Practicing mindfulness can help create a more stress-free and less emotionally reactive holiday season for yourself and those around you.Getty Images

The holidays can be a time of great joy and celebration, but for some it can be a time of stress, anxiety, sadness or loneliness.

And while you can’t always control what happens around you, you can control how you react to it. Certainly, there are wonderful acts of kindness and generosity being done everywhere. At the same time, there are global events like Covid-19, local events like the recent devastating tornadoes, or long-standing family tension and conflict that can make life feel especially hard this time of year.

So, how can you be skillful when faced with holiday challenges? Remember the more skillful you are, the more you will be able to lower your stress and improve your mood and relationships this holiday season. Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which aims at providing people with new skills to manage painful emotions and decrease conflict, can help. Here are five DBT-based skills that you can use to create a more stress-free and less emotionally reactive holiday season for yourself and those around you.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, without judgment, and with a compassionate heart. This time of the year there are a lot of distractions, and it can be easy to forget some of the more sacred elements of the season. Nevertheless, whether you are a religious person or not, you can use mindfulness to pay close attention and be present as you participate in your holiday traditions. If you are stressed by the demands of the moment, the task is to slow down and focus on this moment, do one thing at a time, take everything in, pause, feel your emotions and then decide what you want to do next.

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2. Opposite to emotion action

This is the skill of doing the opposite of what a negative emotion urges you to do. For example, if you want to stay in bed and isolate, get up and call a friend. Or, if you are angry at a family member, find an act of kindness to practice for the person you are angry with or someone else in your life. Holding on to anger leads to your own suffering.

Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, left, and clinical psychologist Dr. Gillian Galen, right.
Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, left, and clinical psychologist Dr. Gillian Galen, right.Anthony Scutro.

3. Be mindful of emotional vulnerabilities

The holiday season can be a time of over-indulgence and poor self-care that leaves you vulnerable to your emotions getting the best of you. Perhaps you are staying up late watching your favorite holiday movies, drinking too much, enjoying an extra slice of holiday cake, or letting go of your daily exercise routine. Leaving these things behind can negatively impact your mood. Pay attention to the impact commit to finding balance in any ways that you can.

4. Radical acceptance

This is the skill that is the practice of not fighting reality. This means that you might have to accept painful and disappointing things this holiday season. For many, the global pandemic may mean that you cannot travel to see a favorite relative or that you will have another year when you cannot participate in a beloved tradition.

You use acceptance when you choose to accept reality for what it is rather than for what you want it to be. This is not easy and if you can practice this repeatedly you will suffer less and more quickly see what you can appreciate in the reality in front of you. Another benefit to accepting reality as it is, is that in as tough as it might be, it is far less exhausting than rejecting and fighting reality.

5. Stop skill

Holidays are busy and often stressful times during which many of us drop the normal activities that help us stay emotionally steady, and as a result we tend to be more reactive. The STOP skill gives you a tool to slow down before doing or saying something that you may regret. Stop, Take a step back, Observe, Proceed mindfully. This skill helps you pause before reacting so that you can proceed using your inner wisdom and in accordance with your personal values.

Gillian Galen, PsyD, is an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School. She is the Program Director and Assistant Director of Training for the 3East Girls Residential, a unique, DBT program for young women exhibiting self-endangering behaviors and borderline personality traits at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. She specializes in the treatment of adolescents and their families using DBT.

Blaise Aguirre, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He is a trainer in, and specializes in, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Aguirre and Galen are the co-authors of "DBT for Dummies."