Don’t let Stress Steal your Holiday

By Salley Schmid

Stress management is a topic that can go in many different directions.  All very useful and important directions in which to explore stress management.   In today’s Act Locally Waco Mental Health blog, I am going to turn your attention to stress management during the holidays with regard to relationships and traditions.

There are some easier to implement stress management tips around these topics and there are some not so easy to implement, but powerfully transformative stress management tips.  Here are a few of hopefully easier to implement ideas:

  • Live / spend / gift within your means shame free
  • Say no to make room for yes:
    • pick fewer traditions, events, and travel scenarios
    • Delegate or purchase pre-prepared when you can (not everything has to be homemade, give yourself a break)
    • Decide as a family what are the few most important traditions and values to express during the holidays and endeavor to meet those and if nothing else gets done it’s ok
    • Recruit help with anything you can – even if you need to pay for some of the help – everyone needs to earn a living and your mental, emotional health is important enough to invest in, hence paying for the help to be less burdened.

AAANNND for some that may be hard in the short run, but stress relieving and energy saving in the long run:  Practice healthy boundaries in relationships.  For example, when giving gifts that are within your financial means remember:

  • your gifts do not define you
  • others’ responses to your gifts do not define you
  • your values and alignment with your values is what defines you – your heart’s intention.

Letting go of feeling responsible for how others feel and think is an act of setting a healthy boundary.  The mindset of the above 3 points helps you do this letting go in order to live that healthy boundary.

Anticipation of the perfect holiday experience is a bit of a set up.  That’s a tall order to fill.  It is basically putting the holiday on a very high pedestal and it is a long fall from that pedestal.  One detail is off and the whole experience seems tainted.  Letting go of these high expectations and the anticipation of the perfect experience, makes room for flexibility, mistakes, forgiveness, and adaptability.  It paves the way for resilience and peace.

Discuss what roles people can play in the holiday experience – give people jobs.  Most individuals want to feel like they are making a meaningful contribution, not solely a recipient of your service.  Having a role or job equals feeling useful and meaningful, not having a role or job equals feeling like a burden and useless.  Invite everyone to feel useful and meaningful this holiday season.

If you have new family members – such as by marriage, invite the new members to share a tradition of their own with your family, get the details so that you can accommodate.  With a heart of gratitude, give up something of your own if necessary to make room for the new.

Be flexible.  As families grow dynamics of all sorts change.  Maybe a different calendar date needs to be set aside for a holiday to get everyone together.  The togetherness is what is important, not the number on a calendar.

Set boundaries in advance with behaviors or scenarios that have led to resentment or difficulty in the past.  For example, if you have a family member who typically gets hammered at the holidays and ends up creating a difficult scenario, in advance, invite that person to come sober and stay sober so that you can connect with that person rather than connecting with alcohol.  Invite them to refrain from coming if they don’t want to remain sober.  Let them know if they come and end up intoxicated, you will call for a ride for them and assist them in getting home without driving.

Another example is with pets.  If your holiday guests have in the past been known to bring their pets without getting permission or even knowing that they are unwelcome, in advance, set the boundary with them.  Ask them to make alternative arrangements for the pets, to bring crates, or stay at a pet friendly hotel . . . and express your gratitude for their presence without the pets.

Boundaries are not easy to set.  When setting them, others will not always receive them well, might accuse you of being mean or selfish, and might get mad at you. All of these responses are possible but not an indicator that you are in the wrong.  It is not your job to ensure everyone is pleased with your every move.  That is an impossible feat.  In the long run, setting healthy boundaries reduces stress, even if it might take a bit of time to get there.  However, it is less stressful than year after year dreading and then resentfully enduring the intolerable.

I wish you peace and joy this holiday season, hold on to what matters, relationships and love, not things, not food, not perfection.  Embrace life and family in all of its glorious messiness.  Hope for the best, but don’t expect it.  Rather, let the days unfold without trying to overly orchestrate each moment and experience.  Organically occurring memories will be the most meaningful.  Orchestrated moments tend to carry the memory of the stress they caused trying to orchestrate them. Let peace and joy be the theme.

salley-schmidSalley Schmid’s counseling practice specializes in helping people transition to a place of strength after experiencing any form of interpersonal trauma or pain, dissatisfaction in relationships, the loss of a sense of self. I work with individuals, families and parents from a family systems perspective. I have extensive experience working with individuals who have experienced psychological or emotional or sexual abuse or any interpersonal trauma, traumatic grief, divorce, blended family work, parenting challenges and attachment difficulties.  Salley Schmid, LMFT can be contacted at Enrichment Counseling at: 254-235-3500 or [email protected].




Mental Health: Compassion Fatigue & Self-Care Practices

By Jennifer Alumbaugh, LMFT

“Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” ~ Dr. Charles Figley

heart handWe’ve all had our experiences with being stressed out—feeling overwhelmed at the end of a long day or a trying week full of deadlines and intense interactions with others. Usually a good night’s rest or a day or two off are enough to recuperate from stress. When that stress builds up over time without proper attention, it leads to burnout which thankfully can usually be relieved by a longer span of time off—like a week vacation or holiday break. Compassion fatigue rests on the more intense end of the spectrum of the impact of caring for others. Sometimes known as “vicarious” or “secondary trauma,” it is the most extreme manifestation of stress resulting from exposure to those who are suffering. It is important to note that compassion fatigue may present after sustained exposure or after only a single event.

In my work providing professional development and support to other professionals in the fields of mental health, social work, medicine, foster care, juvenile justice, family interventions, and community social services I often encounter colleagues who are inclined to underestimate the severity of the effects of compassion fatigue.

sad boy

There is something so uniquely vulnerable about sitting with children and youth who are hurting, who are suffering.

The general stigma is, “that’s not really an actual thing, and even so, I’ve got it under control.” I know. I thought the same thing for years as I worked as a community mental health clinician in Los Angeles County. For five years I saw children and youth who all had histories of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse; exposure to community and gang violence; or had experience in the system as a foster child or in a juvenile corrections facility or sometimes all of the above. When I first learned about compassion fatigue—in depth and as an actual issue complete with symptomatology—I thought I was fine. I had it together. I used the phrase “self-care” frequently to qualify activities in which I engaged. I went to supervision. I debriefed with colleagues. I had it all under control.

But I didn’t.

As I moved through that first compassion fatigue training, I began to connect the dots of what I was experiencing. I completed a self-evaluation and found myself to be off the charts with compassion fatigue and burnout and in subzero territory with barely any restorative assets in sight. I was in dire straits.

hair ladyWhen compassion fatigue hits, we feel it across the landscape of our entire being: cognitive, relational, emotional, spiritual, physical, and behavioral. Just like any other ailment of the mind or body, the symptoms begin to interfere with our normal, everyday functioning. We begin to question not only the meaning of our work, but the existential angst spreads to every area of our lives. Compassion fatigue unchecked has the power to unravel us entirely, even rocking our foundation of our core beliefs. It’s serious. It’s real. It deserves our undivided attention.

Thankfully, there is hope. Like with so many other challenges in our lives, awareness and education are vital first steps. Understanding the pervasive scope of compassion fatigue, how we are personally at risk or affected, and what practical steps are necessary to recover and maintain wellness and to prevent future instances.

Most importantly, we need to be kind to ourselves, honoring the truth that it is not a result of our own short-comings that we may experience compassion fatigue. In fact, “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water and not get wet,” (Remen, 1996).

water sitAfter awareness comes action. It is vital that as professionals we intentionally pursue our own wellness. If experiencing compassion fatigue, a season in personal therapy is strongly recommended to address personal and professional circumstances leading to the secondary traumatization. Additionally working through an assets inventory will help to identify specific areas of life that need a boost in self-care practices, people, and pampering. The process is unique for everyone but it is not optional. As Dr. Charles Figley—expert in the field and Director of the Tulane Traumatology Institute–asserts, “It is unethical to not attend to your self-care as a practitioner, because intentional self-care practice prevents harming those we serve.”

Professionally and personally this time of year is often ripe for stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue. While an in-depth training usually spans several hours of teaching, self-evaluations, discussion, and workshopping self-care plans, I couldn’t leave you without a few quick tips for self-care best practices!

Quick Tips for Self-Care Best Practices:

Helpful hint 1: DO spend time with non-traumatized people (this includes family and friends!) who replenish your empathy, joy, and compassion. – Going out with colleagues after work or at lunch is only replenishing if you instate a “No Talking about Work” rule and hold each other accountable!

Helpful hint 2: Set firm boundaries around the time and space you spend with those who deplete your energy, compassion, and nurturing…yes, even/especially when they are your family and friends. It is difficult, not impossible.

Helpful hint 3: If you feel you must spend time with people who deplete you, plan your visit outside of your home, office, or personal space—go to their home, a restaurant, coffee shop, other public venue. This allows you the freedom to leave on your own schedule, avoiding the awkwardness of guests overstaying their welcome in your space.

Helpful hint 4: Set a specific amount of time for your visit and let them know at the beginning that you’ll need to leave by X time. You don’t need to give an explanation for where or why you need to leave, and you don’t need to contrive elaborate fictions. It may sound something like, “Sure let’s grab coffee, I can meet at 1pm and will need to head out by 2pm.”

Self-Care Challenge: Before the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2015, I challenge you to engage in three (3) activities of at least 1 hour each that serve only you. Meaning, you are the only beneficiary of the activity—be it a massage, a walk along a favorite hiking trail, a small gift for yourself, watching the game with friends, getting a sitter for a night out, engaging in a creative/art outlet, or turning off your electronics and going to bed early—whatever resonates with you, do that thing, guilt-free, and practice radical acts of self-love and care.

aJennifer Alumbaugh, MS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist providing clinical and professional development consultation services at Enrichment Training and Counseling Solutions. She practiced as a mental health clinician throughout Los Angeles County working with children, youth, and their families from 2007-2012. In Central Texas, Jennifer has worked as a Site Coordinator with Communities in Schools of The Heart of Texas at G.W. Carver Middle School; as an independent consultant and professional development trainer; and conference speaker. In 2016 Jennifer created an implemented a therapeutic creative writing program, Brave Young Voices, at Klaras Center for Families and at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department correctional campus at Mart, TX.  Jennifer has extensive experience working with adolescent and adult survivors of psychological and spiritual abuse, trauma (sexual violence, childhood trauma, interpersonal violence); and complex PTSD. These, along with grief and loss work are her areas of specialization.  She may be reached at: [email protected] or 254-405-2496.

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