It started back in August…
The thought of the holidays unconsciously creeped in and before I knew it, I was feeling the anxiety that was all too familiar. Anticipation of the decorations, the songs, the going through the motions pretending that everything is wonderful when inside it is anything but. Heaviness crammed its way in months prior to this supposed joyful season and I felt overwhelmed even thinking about it.
Running through my mind were questions such as: how was I going to manage it? Would be easier or worse than last year? What activities could we plan that could take my mind off it?
Same questions, same worries, same feelings as every other year since my parents’ deaths. I should be used to it by now, I thought. Something I will just have to live with the rest of my life, I told myself. Learn to ask for what you want others said, plan something different, or, when all else fails, have another glass.
But something stirred in me this summer. When the anxiety tried to settle in to its usual place (typically on my shoulders), I felt a resistance to it. A kind of repulsion, actually. The thought of going through another holiday season with the same dread as years past felt tired and sickening.
I had been there, done that and for some reason, I was ready for change…
It’s now been a few months since I (Kristy, the content writer for CNMA) made the decision to actively process my holiday-related grief and while I have no expectation that the holidays will be picture-perfect, I do have a renewed sense of joyful anticipation. For the first time in 11 years, I’m looking forward to gathering around the tree, making cookies, and even singing a song or two.
Throughout this quest to find happiness at the holidays, I asked Dr. Graves many questions. In addition to learning about why grief can hit hard at such a cheerful season, here is a conversation I found particularly insightful:
Kristy: You’ve helped me realize that certain triggers at the holidays can exacerbate grief. Should I avoid these triggers or learn to live with them?
Dr. Graves: It can take a lot of time and energy to avoid pain and suffering and it never addresses the underlying grief. I find it more helpful to process grief instead. Finding space where you can feel that pain, fall apart, and create new neural pathways can be healing, even if it’s difficult.
Kristy: What do you mean when you say neural pathways?
Dr. Graves: Neural pathways are electrical pathways between different parts of the brain. They do such things as regulate emotions and stimulate the fight or flight response. This electrical circuit system can be over or underworking due to trauma and/or unprocessed grief in which the brain can get stuck in “ruts” that are often difficult to get out of (such as grief triggers at the holidays).
New neural pathways can be created, however, to help the brain free itself from unhealthy cycles. This can result in looking at past trauma with fresh perspective, being open to new experiences, and detaching from high intensity memory emotions.
Kristy: How does one create new neural pathways?
Dr. Graves: You mentioned that over the summer you had EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy to help process painful and traumatic memories that the holidays tend to bring up. Those sessions with a trained EDMR therapist helped re-circuit your brain in order for you to look at those past memories in a different light without such strong emotion attached to them.
Do you think that is what the therapy was able to do?
Kristy: Yes, without a doubt. It was life-changing in many ways. I can now look back at sad times without the debilitating emotional distress. I objectively remember those memories as events that took place, but I am not defined nor constrained by them.
Dr. Graves: That was a great option for you.
Other therapies to process grief and make new neural pathways are:
- acupuncture (this aims to calm an overactive limbic system and quiet the mind to allow emotions to flow. It often results in clarity as the brain processes feelings.)
- holistic counseling
- group therapy
- plant medicine (specific herbs work to calm the nervous system, anxiety, stress, etc.)
I think one of the most important things is to create space to feel what needs to be felt in a safe and dedicated environment.
Kristy: What would you recommend to someone who is interested in processing grief at the holidays?
Dr. Graves: First, awareness of one’s grief is crucial. Understanding that it’s okay to not feel okay can allow one to open up to the possibility of creating new neural pathways. Then, it’s important for one to discover what works well for them. It could be time alone to think, write and reflect, or, it may be scheduling acupuncture and a therapy session.
There are many ways to process grief and if someone doesn’t know where to start or has tried things that haven’t worked, I encourage them to schedule a complimentary 15 minute phone consultation with me or call our office at (303) 688-6698 so we can talk through difficulties and naturopathic options that may help.
It’s important for them to know they are not alone. This is common – as you experienced. The good thing is that there are options to reduce or alleviate the pain and suffering.
The CNMA office provides naturopathic care, acupuncture, testing, massage, and holistic counseling to those in Castle Rock, Castle Pines, Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree, Centennial, Parker, Larkspur, Monument, Colorado Springs, and the greater Denver metro area. For those outside of these areas, virtual appointments are available.
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