The holidays are a time of heightened reality. A time to reaffirm bonds of friendship and family. The general merriment of the season can make what we have in our lives resonate wonderfully with a sense of abundance and plenty, but it can also highlight what feels missing or never had a chance to be.
Holidays make our senses come alive. Through treasured tunes, time honored rituals and the familiar sights, sounds and smells of the season, memories are called forward. They arise from deep inside of us; from our emotional/sense memory system, our “limbic brain” in other words, or that basic, human part of us that holds the vast and varied emotional and sense impressions that ground us in reality and give shape and meaning to our lives. That part of us that sees, hears, touches, smells and feels. These “limbic” memories are roused into consciousness by the many and memorable sights and songs of the holidays. They are “triggered” by the familiar flavors, scenes, sounds and scents that are part of the season of celebration. And each taste, each song, each sight, has accompanying emotion double coded right with it, woven alongside the mental and emotional meaning we have made of the whole, holiday gestalt throughout our lives. The holiday season is one, massive emotional trigger; it goes straight into our limbic system and catches us off guard, making us feel and “remember” whether we want to or not.
Factoid: The limbic system actually sends many more messages to the prefrontal cortex than the prefrontal cortex sends to the limbic system, this means that feelings out power thoughts. Because of the pervasiveness of the limbic (read: sensorial/emotional) system, because our whole body is essentially wired to feel and sense, these recollections can push their way past our “thinking” brain and make us feel things we may have forgotten were even there.
Holidays can cause us to experience emotion in the extremes. We can be drawn toward both exquisite pleasure and exquisite pain; our emotional bells so to speak, are triggered into high gear.
Because limbic memories have such unconscious strength and because much of their feeling content can be at least partly unconscious, they can present a challenge for the person who is trying to stay physically sober or emotionally sober.
Holiday Grief Triggers
Understanding what can trigger unconscious grief reactions can help us to figure out why we might be struggling emotionally or psychologically during the holidays. It can enlighten us as to where our free-floating sense of anxiety, irritation or depressive thoughts might be coming from so that they don’t fuel disturbing feelings, body sensations or negative behavior without our awareness. Following is a list of common life/holiday situations that can trigger grief reactions.
Holiday/ “Anniversary” Reactions: Because holidays are a time of traditional ritual gatherings, they can heighten our awareness about what is missing or what has changed. Try: Creating some new holiday “memories” that “feel good”. Code in some new sensorial and emotional impressions to counteract the old ones and be patient, the idea isn’t to create the perfect holiday but to (slowly, slowly) create some new limbic “memories” with more positive meaning attached to them. Decorate your home, play your favorite holiday music, have a holiday spa day, cook foods that bring you a sense of pleasure and even purpose and connection (you can give it away or share it). Become willing to enjoy the sights, sounds and flavors of the season.
Seasonal Reactions: Change of seasons can stimulate grief or be unconsciously associated with a loss, thus causing a type of depression during a particular season. Try: Remember what this season stimulates in you and do extra self care. Self care may take the form of more meetings, appointments with a therapist to process reactions, massages, sports or rest and relaxation. Or all of the above.
Music-stimulated grief: Music can act as a doorway to the unconscious. It activates the right brain, drawing out associations and feelings that get stimulated by a particular song or sounds (“sleigh bells ring”?). The holidays are full of musical memories that carry a plethora of images and emotions in their wake. Try: Playing music that you know makes you feel calmed, cozy, uplifted or in the spirit.
Ritual-Stimulated Grief: Significant shared rituals can stimulate grief if there has been a loss of some kind. For example, family dinners or gatherings can be a sad time for those who have experienced divorce or losses though addiction. The holidays are full of the kinds of family rituals that can bring back both memories of wonderful holiday moments or pain filled, empty or turbulent ones. Try: Creating your own recovery rituals. Start simply, whatever you feel will bring you pleasure, whether it be going out to a theatrical event, eating out with friends or cooking and having a holiday gathering. Attend your local faith institutions and participate in the wonderful celebrations of the season. Create new rituals to counter the old one, even if you have to push yourself in the beginning. Over time it will feel natural and these rituals will come to have meaning for you and for those around you, you’ll be forming new, positive “ holiday memories” to counter old ones.
Smells and Scents: Smell is associated with the oldest part of the brain, the olfactory sense, and acts as a powerful stimulant of memories that are associated with a particular scent. The holidays surround us with every sort of aroma and most of them are associated with some memory or another. Turkey, cranberries, cookies, pine needles, holiday cakes; even the smell of cold air can all be part of the holiday aura. Try: This one is easy; fill your own home with the smells that you enjoy from the holidays be it cookies, cranberries, tree or turkey, enjoy making the foods of the season and surrounding yourself with sweet smelling decorations!
This year put yourself on your holiday list! Give yourself a present; wrap your personal world in the simple sorts of holiday pleasures that bring you particular satisfaction and contentment, only you know just what these are. Now is a good time to practice self care and self love and to then share it with others. Get extra rest, stay relaxed and don’t fight those “sentimental” feelings when they come. If you have a melancholy moment, remember, it will pass. Sometimes by feeling the grief that blocks the joy, we’re giving ourselves a real holiday gift, a present that allows us to be more present to life. See the holidays as a time when grief is part of the gift, it can be hard to get to unconscious pain so that it can be felt and released. If the holidays stimulate old, painful emotions that are in the way of your serenity, surrender. Let the feelings of longing happen and then release them and allow yourself to heal at the holidays.