Media contact: Anna Jones
For some, the holiday season is filled with traditions, time spent with loved ones, and an opportunity to rest and look forward to the new year. For others, the holidays are filled with grief, stress, exhaustion and dread.
No matter what people may be feeling during this season, the important thing to remember is that they are not alone. Kaylee Crockett, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, scientist and assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Family and Community Medicine, encourages applying an evidence-based psychotherapy approach known as Acceptance Commitment Therapy to prioritize mental health and prepare and make the most out of the holiday season. ACT consists of three areas: accepting reactions and being present, choosing a valued direction, and taking action.
“ACT offers a framework for centering acceptance, mindfulness and personal values that may help direct us through the season, no matter what feelings show up,” Crockett said.
Accepting thoughts and feelings
Crockett notes that many negative thoughts that arise during the holiday season can be linked back to rigid thinking, which can be characterized by “all or nothing” thinking.
“ACT focuses on flexibility in thinking and feeling,” Crockett said. “It encourages stepping away from those thoughts such as, ‘I should be happy because it’s the holidays,’ or ‘I should be spending time with a loving family,’ or ‘If I do not find the perfect gift, then I have failed,’ or those feelings of tensing up or tuning out at the mention of the holidays.”
These rigid thoughts lead to tension and stress because they do not allow for room for error or nuance. Crockett says it is OK to have these types of thoughts, but acceptance is needed to help navigate these thoughts in a healthy way.
“The key is movement toward acceptance — approaching experiences with openness and curiosity,” Crockett said. “When you notice a rigid thought show up this season, practice stepping back from that thought and noticing what feelings are showing up with acceptance and compassion.”
Some acceptance strategies include allowing thoughts and feelings to happen without impulsively acting on them; observing weaknesses while also acknowledging strengths; giving oneself permission to make mistakes and not be good at everything; acknowledging the difficulties in life without trying to avoid or escape them; and realizing that they have control over how they feel, think and react.
Another way to combat rigid thoughts is to practice mindfulness and be present in the moment.
“Mindfulness can help us savor pleasant experiences, but many of us miss these opportunities because we get caught up thinking about the past or worrying about the future,” Crockett said. “Sometimes we avoid being present in the moment because we find it painful to sit with uncomfortable thoughts or emotions. Instead we may busy ourselves with distractions that are not fulfilling, such as getting lost on social media, isolating ourselves or worrying.”
To avoid getting swept up in a negative thought pattern or behavior, Crockett recommends tuning in to inner thoughts and experiences without judgment. She encourages everyone to do their best to make intentional decisions about their behaviors following negative thoughts or feelings.
Some mindfulness exercises include taking the time to experience one’s environment with all their senses, to try to bring an accepting and discerning attention to everything one does, to treat oneself as they would treat a friend, and to stop and focus on breathing when negative thoughts arise.
Connecting with personal values
Using ACT also means applying personal values to life experiences.
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“Values are not achievable goals, but broad concepts that help direct goal-setting,” Crockett said. “We tend to experience distress when our behavior is inconsistent with our values. For example, many of us buy gifts for the holidays. If generosity is a personal value, gift-giving can be a fulfilling activity. If saving for the future is a value, over-gifting may feel distressing.”
To use personal values to set goals, Crockett recommends setting some time aside to write a list of what is most important and using this list to help make decisions about how to spend one’s time and resources this holiday season.
“Values are personal. Sitting down with loved ones and reviewing what’s most important to each other this season can be a way to connect and make sure activities are planned to help everyone feel fulfilled.”