• Kayte Thomas

Holiday distress? Here’s a TIPP!

The holidays can be a challenging time for many. This is the time of year when mental health practitioners prepare for clients to go into crisis a little – or a lot – more than usual. For some people, especially those who have experienced trauma and/or loss, the holidays are not a time filled with joy and connection. Rather, these times are full of reminders of what is missing whether it is a loved one or needed connection.

While others are enjoying their holiday rituals, family gatherings, and other festivities during the holiday seasons, those who have suffered loss or trauma do not share in the enjoyment of this timeframe. Human beings both desire and require connection and healthy attachment as a fundamental need, and when that is missing this creates a painful experience. And when someone is in this place of pain, the frequent reminders of how much everyone else is enjoying a time that is difficult for them can be very isolating and triggering.

It is important to understand how and why some people struggle during this time, because this builds empathy and reduces stigma around those who need extra support. For some who have experienced loss, holidays remind them of previous times when their loved ones were here and the sorrow can feel overwhelming. This is so common in fact that it is an understood phenomenon that anniversaries or annual events (such as holidays) will remind people of their loss and may create a crisis situation. For others who have experienced abuse, holidays are a time in which they may be forced in contact with family members who have been abusive in any number of ways, or excluded from family events because they stood up for themselves at some point. Some may have also self-excluded for their own need for boundaries. For others who are isolated or alone – particularly during this pandemic – holidays can just feel extra sad. Regardless, this is still a painful time for many individuals.

When people are in pain and without adequate coping skills, they may go into crisis. Crisis can look like many things. It can be concerns for immediate risk such as thoughts of suicide, in which case immediate intervention such as calling a crisis line or even a trip to the hospital is necessary. It can also look like non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) in which the person does not want to end their life but still harms themselves via ways such as cutting, punching, burning, etc. Or, it may look like significant anxiety in which a person cannot calm down or cannot stop crying. Crisis is when a person is in a state in which they need support to re-regulate their emotions to a more stable baseline.

Now just to be extra clear – if there is an immediate threat to safety which cannot be contained, please call 911, a crisis line, or go to the hospital. Period, full stop.

Beyond that though, I am a HUGE fan of hacking the nervous system. So let’s talk about how to do that today! When your nervous system is overwhelmed via perceived threat or overwhelming emotion, it is often possible to reset that system with a few quick steps. SO MUCH of how we are feeling is actually a nervous system response, so understanding how to regulate or reset that becomes very critical in cases of crisis.

For this, there is an excellent technique from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) with the acronym TIPP. It goes as follows:

  • T: Temperature Change – intentionally make yourself cold. Hold an ice cube, take a cold shower, splash cold water on your face.

  • I: Intense Exercise - run up and down the stairs, do jumping jacks, go for a brisk walk. Dance!

  • P: Paced Breathing – focus on those belly breaths! Deep breathing, in through the nose slowly, out through the mouth. Breathe slowly, about 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out.

  • P: Progressive Muscle Relaxation – start at the lower end of your body and purposely tense and release your muscles. Time it with your breathing. Tighten muscles while you’re breathing in, release while you’re breathing out. Complete for all major muscle groups.

Why does this work though? Well, this is why the human body is amazing. These activities activate the parasympathetic nervous system – the part that is responsible for making you feel calm and slowing down things such as heart rate and breathing. It also releases endorphins which can counteract stress hormones in your body. And, it sends a message to your brain that it’s time to “shift gears”, and the deep breathing and muscle relaxation tells your body that you are safe. The increase in oxygen to your body from breathing and exercise acts to decrease stress levels. It is for every practical purpose a nervous system hack.

“But what if I can’t exercise?” Great question. If you have any physical limitations or health conditions, please speak to your doctor about trying any of these things. Nervous system changes also affect some pretty critical functions such as your heart rate, and it’s important to be sure that you’re physically able to do this without negative effect. If you can’t exercise and everything else is ok, consider just an environmental change. Go outside and sit in the sunshine. Listen to some calming music. Chat with a friend for a bit. All of those things also release feel-good hormones and perk up your nervous system too.

Will this make everything better instantly? No, of course not. But will it ensure that you can circumvent a huge anxiety attack, remain calm, shift your focus, and maybe even prevent a crisis large enough for hospitalization. And if you are witnessing a friend or loved one in crisis, it may just give you a way to provide support and guidance during this time.

Remember to give enough time to let your nervous system reset. This means about 20 minutes or so. Don’t panic if it doesn’t feel like it’s working right away. When in doubt, keep breathing slowly with those deep belly breaths. If this doesn’t work, you can always call crisis response and you will be able to tell them that you have tried this already. Usually though, I would expect this to help in the majority of situations. It should be enough to be able to communicate what you need for support or seek assistance in other ways if nothing else. And….it just might save a life in some instances as well.

The holiday season can be hard, friends. Crisis situations are expected. Know that you have tools to overcome these feelings and you are not alone.

Take care of yourselves, and each other. I hope this is beneficial in the upcoming weeks for someone who needs this.

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