Holidays and the emotional highjack
Written on December 1, 2013 by Dr. Laurie
It’s that time of year.
Clients coming in to see me are more stressed and anxious and depressed than usual. It’s the holidays.
No matter if you celebrate them or not, cultural expectations, family demands and end of the year pressures can combine to create a difficult brew of feelings and thoughts.
What I observe is that these stresses and pressures make us more vulnerable to what neuropsychologists term the “emotional hijack.”
That hijack occurs when a thought or feeling triggers a cascade of painful emotion.
“I never should have said that.”
“He thinks I’m stupid – I am stupid.”
“I can’t get it right – even though I’m trying!!”
When we’re hijacked, we go down the spiral and we can’t stop or negative or obsessive thoughts. There is no solid emotional ground.
This highjack happens even more easily when we’re dealing with pain, or adding a crazed December schedule of “must do” on top of an already complicated regimen of doctors and insurance calls, and health maintenance.
So what can you do to avoid – or more likely recover from a highjack?
Our overloaded nervous systems need help to get back to equilibrium.
Here are a few options for you to try.
Deep long full breath. When we get anxious or frightened we tend to hold our breath or breathe shallowly. If you are able, stand up, relax your shoulders and your belly, and take a full breath of delicious energizing oxygen. Take another. This is a way to calm the racing brain and body.
Imagination can get us into trouble – forecasting a dire future or the next negative event, but our imagination can also get us out of trouble. If we listen to ourselves long enough when we get highjacked, we can recognize that we feel scared. Our brains are wired to look for threats to our safety – and sometimes a harsh word from someone, or our internal critic is enough to start the stampede of fear.
Use your imagination to connect with a place or a person or a time when you felt completely safe and calm. Maybe lying in the sun, or being with someone who you know loves you without reservation. Maybe you are sitting in a tree or in a retreat center – it is your place where you can feel calm. See and feel yourself there. Place a hand on your heart and reassure yourself that you are ok.
Making a connection with someone can shift a highjack back to neutral. It doesn’t have to be a loved one. A quick conversation with the man at the drycleaners, or the cashier making your change and coffee can be enough to restore calm. We are also wired to need each other. So even a casual exchange can be enough to bring you back to center.
This may seem like the most challenging thing to do when you are in the midst of an emotional meltdown. These episodes make us more serious, and more internally driven. It’s hard to get out of that stranglehold. But if you consciously relax your body, and focus on dropping your shoulders, loosening your jaw, softening your hands, it helps. Laughing is a quick shortcut to relaxing your body. Maybe you are a secret lover of cat videos, or cartoons, or toddler pratfalls on YouTube. Take a moment to seek out something that makes you laugh. Your body will relax, and so will your mind. You will be more able to come back to center and equilibrium.
This time of year brings added stress and demands. Everyone feels it. You are more vulnerable to the triggers that can highjack your emotions and leave you feeling worse.
The suggestions I gave are little interruptions that can restore some inner peace and equanimity. You deserve some calm and centered emotional space so you can enjoy what matters to you during this time of year!