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  • Anna Mayer, MA, R-DMT

Don't Just Cope – Thrive Through the Holidays

In Western U.S. culture, the winter holidays are kind of a big deal. Whether you love them or dread them, signs of various holidays (especially Christmas) are everywhere – from light-up reindeer seemingly multiplying in neighbor's yards, to your Lyft driver humming along to a jazzy version of Oh Holy Night on the radio. For lots of folks, this is a pretty stressful time.

In my work with clients, and especially in the work I do with hospital-based groups here in Denver, this time of year I aim to help folks get prepared to handle the holidays' inevitable stresses: visiting family members (and being plunged into tough family dynamics), being around a lot of alcohol, having nobody to spend the holidays with, feeling pressured to 'do' the holidays 'right' (hosting, gifting, decorating, baking, and on and on, you name the expectation), traveling and being thrown off of your routine, having your support network be out of town... any of these sound familiar?

DBT (or Dialectical Behavior Therapy) has coined an approach that I often use with my hospital clients to transform worrying about the worst outcome (we call that catastrophizing, and a lot of us are experts at it!) into preparing yourself – mentally and practically – to cultivate the best outcome possible. We call it 'coping ahead'.

Coping ahead is a way to anticipate a stressful situation and – instead of worrying about how it will all go wrong – game-planning so that you'll have the best chance for it to all go well.

I'm taking this up a notch – let's plan ahead to cope, yes, and while we're at it, let's plan ahead to thrive. After all, many of us don't want to just cope, we want to move past surviving to thriving.

Thriving Ahead:

(for the holidays, or for any other stressful time)

Steps 1, 5, & 6 reflect DBT's coping ahead skill – steps 2, 3, & 4 are my body-based, mindful additions to help you ramp it up from coping to thriving!

1. What do you anticipate will be challenging for you?

You may find yourself avoiding thinking about it (since after all, it's a stressful thing we're imagining), but just try turning towards it. Get a good look at what you believe will be challenging about it – point at it and name it. Get specific. From here, you can take steps to plan ahead for it.

2. How do you expect you might react to whatever stress is getting thrown your way?

We're not here to indulge our disaster-prone worst-case-scenario mind (because that one gets enough air time already, am I right?) – instead, we want to honestly identify how we tend to react to this kind of stress. From this awareness, we can move through our patterned reactions toward making empowered responses.

What emotions do you expect you might feel? Defensive? Shut down? Ashamed? Irritated? Lonely?

What urges to react might come up for you? To attack? Withdraw? Hide? Judge yourself? To do something that might make you feel better in the short-term, but that isn't helpful for you in the long run?

3. How do you want to respond instead?

This is where you get to take ownership – to claim your power to choose some part of how you respond, rather than react. Take the time to name how you desire to respond to this future situation: with compassion for others? from your personal truth? with integrity to your values? by being gentle with yourself? by having the courage to reach out? with calm centeredness?

4. Reach for a sense of this response already happening in you.

Take a minute to cultivate a sense of how this quality already exists within you. Whatever you named as your desired response (say, for this example, gentleness), reach for the sensation of that quality in your body, mind, and spirit. You may want to think of other situations where you have easier access to gentleness (say, towards a loved one or a pet) to help you get a sense of it. Feel around for the gentleness that already exists within you, and dip a toe into that sensation – this is a reminder that it is within your reach!

5. What will you do to help yourself respond in the way you would like to, rather than reacting out of habit or old patterns?

Imagine yourself coping well. Draw on the healthy coping skills you've developed throughout your life, on approaches that have worked well for you in the past, and on ways you've seen other people respond positively to stress. From your point of view, visualize yourself going through the stressful situation, and at every step, responding the way you would like to respond. Notice what you might need to do, in the situation itself, to manage your emotions and to shift yourself from patterned reactions to empowered responses.

6. What do you need to do to set yourself up for success?

Now that you've imagined yourself coping well, and even thriving in this stressful situation, what do you need to do to translate that positive imagery into practical action?

Do you need to: Write down your action plan and keep it somewhere you'll see it? Bring anything specific with you into the situation? Have any reminders set up (on your phone, to go off in the situation, or as a sticky note somewhere)? Get yourself an accountability buddy and share your plan with them?

Make sure that you are prepared, both mentally and practically, whatever that looks like for you!


A hypothetical example of how this might look:

1. What do you anticipate will be challenging for you?

My sister always makes passive aggressive, judgmental comments about my career in front of the whole family, and I'm expecting she will again at our holiday dinner.

2. How do you expect you might react to whatever stress is getting thrown your way?

I might feel ashamed, and believe that she's right about what a loser I actually am. But usually I hide that by getting angry, both at her and at myself, and I try to attack her by making a joke that points out one of her flaws, too. Afterwards, I generally feel resentful and small.

3. How do you want to respond instead?

This time, I want to show myself some gentleness, and to not lash out at her for her comments – to show her some gentleness too, I guess, while staying connected to my self-worth.

4. Reach for a sense of this response already happening in you.

When I reach for a sense of my self-worth, it feels like a calm, solid warmth in my chest, and I feel relaxed in my face and jaw. I think about how I show gentleness to my cat, and I feel a softening of the tension in my stomach, and a soft smile comes to my lips and corners of my eyes. From this place, I spontaneously say to myself, "it's okay – you're okay. I've got you."

5. What will you do to help yourself respond in the way you would like to, rather than reacting out of habit or old patterns?

I imagine spending a couple minutes in the car when I pull up to our parents' house, practicing a lovingkindness meditation. I imagine using intentionally slower breathing at various times throughout dinner, whenever I notice myself getting tense or holding my breath. When my sister says that thing, whatever it is this time, I imagine taking my time responding, to give myself time to make a different choice. In that space before I respond, I imagine intentionally relaxing my face and jaw, like the self-worth felt like before, and softening my stomach and eyes, like the gentleness felt like, to reach for those feelings again. I imagine saying something to her that reflects my own acceptance of my career choices, that feels true to the part of me that knows I"m actually doing fine. I imagine changing the subject by complimenting the food, or asking about one of our parents' hobbies. If I need a re-set button, I imagine I can excuse myself to the bathroom to calm down and reach for my sense of gentleness and self-worth. Repeat as needed.

6. What do you need to do to set yourself up for success?

I can put a sticky note on my steering wheel to remind myself to do the lovingkindness meditation before I hurry into the house. I can wear a special bracelet that will remind me to breathe more deeply when I look at it, or even write 'breathe' on my inner wrist where only I will see it. On the way there, I can say out loud to myself how I intend to respond differently. I can come up with some encouraging statements that I believe about myself, so I'm prepared with those, and I can use them to silently remind myself of my own worth, as needed, throughout the evening.


Everyone's thriving ahead plan will look differently – it will be unique to your life, your needs, and how you choose to respond. I hope these steps and example are helpful to you, and that you make them your own to both cope well and thrive during the upcoming holidays season – whatever it has in store for you.

If you would like more support around shifting old, worn-out patterns and reactions, and creating new, empowered responses to your life, I would love to hear from you! Contact me to schedule a no-charge, 20-minute consultation where we can talk about what kind of support you're looking for, and whether I'm the guide for you.


Anna Mayer, MA, R-DMT, is a body-based counselor and dance/movement therapist based in Boulder, CO. She offers individual sessions, embodied couples therapy, and dance/movement DBT skills.


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