Fall is fully underway and the holidays are right around the corner. For many people, the holidays bring about cozy moments with loved ones, family gatherings, and a time for rest and relaxation. But for others, this time of year can bring loneliness, stress, anxiety, and sadness. And then again, some people experience a bit of both – joy and stress.
Perhaps you are meeting your partner’s parents for the first time, or experiencing your first holiday post-breakup, or spending time with well-meaning but judgmental family members, or flying cross-country with children – all of these situations have the potential to turn in to total sh*t shows – and quite literally if you’ve ever flown with small children! (Parents – I have an even more detailed blog post about coping ahead for the holidays just for you here).
One of the most helpful skills that I recommend people practice during this time of year is coping ahead, a skill commonly taught in CBT and DBT. This means identifying what may be stressful about a situation coming up and making a plan for how to cope. While I can’t promise that you can prevent all conflict and discomfort, I am confident that coping ahead may make this season more manageable.
Step 1 – Identify and describe the situation that is worrying you, trying to be as factual and nonjudgmental as you can. Check in with yourself about how this situation may make you feel and any unhelpful urges or behaviors you may be likely to want to do (such as isolate, argue, drink, or avoid). Example: Spending New Years’ Eve alone after a bad breakup may lead you to feel sad and lonely, and you may want to isolate, drink excessively, and look through old photos of your ex.
Step 2 – Plan out what skills you would like to use in that situation. Be as detailed and specific as you can, and include extra skills and strategies for as many possible contingencies as you can imagine. Example: You can reach out to friends in advance to see who is available to spend the NYE holiday with you, doing something fun and distracting like watching a new movie together. You might ask your friend to help you limit alcohol use and to instead order your favorite food. If reminders of your ex come up, you might practice deep breathing to relax your body or you might keep your favorite smelling lotion on hand to use as a self-soothe strategy. You might even ask your friend to delete (or at least hide) the photos of your ex on your phone.
Step 3 – Now, imagine the situation as vividly as possible. If it helps, close your eyes and picture as many details as you can, including how you might feel.
Step 4 – Rehearse and imagine in your mind coping effectively! Go over what you might think, say, and how you might say it; practice what you will do, where, how, and with who; and even imagine coping with the worst-case situation.
Step 5 – You did it! Now it’s time to practice some relaxation after that rehearsal.
You may need to practice coping ahead for the same situation a few times until you feel confident and ready, and that’s okay. In fact, this is very similar to how professional athletes prepare for the game – by imagining the situation and how they will handle it.
Whatever this time of year means to you, I hope you find this skill helpful.