Vulnerability Factors of the Holiday Season

As a neurodivergent individual, I have a love/hate relationship with the holidays. I enjoy what I refer to as the *shiny factor* of this time of year – lights, decorations, presents & holiday music can all bring a smile to my face. However, without fail, by January 1st I tend to be over-socialized and on the verge of burnout.

For neurodivergent individuals the holiday season can be a minefield of different vulnerabilities. We’re out of our usual routines & schedules, we may have lots of extra exposure to family (and their beliefs and/or patterns of invalidation), there’s potential for all sorts of sensory overload, and the demands of December can feel completely overwhelming.

In DBT we identify vulnerability factors as anything that decreases our ability to regulate emotions in the moment. I realized this week, that we could break those vulnerability factors down into three specific categories when it pertains to the holidays:

Family Triggers
Seasonal Factors
Potential for Overindulgence

Family Triggers
1) Increased exposure to family. As neurodivergent individuals many of us have experienced years of invalidation from members of our families. From the “You shouldn’t feel that way” to “You’re too sensitive” these messages (especially when present in early childhood) have an extra level of sting when coming from the mouth of a parent. If your holiday plans include lots of extra time with family, this may mean those events include more invalidation than your typical day. One helpful tip if this is the case – try to bookend interactions with family with some solid validation. I recommend using self validation techniques or a loving kindness meditation before and a quick chat with someone who understands you and your beautiful brain afterwards.
2) Advertising and societal messaging. The holidays bring a specific type of messaging to the forefront of advertising. Happy family gatherings are the norm & everybody has a partner that loves them are two themes repeated over and over from perfume commercials, to car ads and oh those lovely Hallmark specials. The scenes portrayed in these represent reality for such a small portion of the population; however, the consistency of these messages across brands can make it hard to remember that life doesn’t look like that for most people.
3) Trauma & Grief. Tying in with advertising, messages about loving families and happy couples can be especially triggering to those with CPTSD, complex family dynamics & those who have chosen to go no contact with loved ones. Grief just tends to hit extra hard this time of year. If you are dealing with the loss of a loved one, finding a grief share group can be especially helpful this time of year to have a designated container for your sadness.

Seasonal Factors
1) Scheduling & Overcommitment. Tis the season of activities! The last 6 week of the year is a time filled with commitments (both pleasurable and obligatory) that aren’t part of our regular schedules. As neurodivergent individuals we may find it really discomfortable when our routine is thrown off. It easy to find yourself overwhelmed and slipping into a state of anxiety. Keeping a written or digital calendar (even if you don’t the rest of the year) can be really helpful to avoid overcommitment and scheduling multiple events at the same time (I have been guilty of this more than once!)
2) Expectations vs reality. When I think of Christmas as a child the word that best describes it is excitement. When you get down to it though, excitement is a pretty un-mindful emotion. Excitement is the anticipation of future joy, it is not grounded in the present moment. Excitement can fire some pleasure hormones off in the present, but it is based on events that have yet to occur. Excitement can set us up for really big let downs – when for whatever reason, life doesn’t meet the expectations we have built up in our heads, we pay for that hit of joy earlier with more disappointment and sadness in the present.
3) Sensory Overload & SAD factors. The seasonal weather aspects tend to be twofold. First cold. If you have any of often cooccurring autoimmune or connective tissues disorders associated with neurodivergence, then winter is probably more discomfortable in your body than other seasons. They’re also the sensory overload of layering clothes and having to deal with multiple textures on your skin all day. And there is the Seasonal Affective Disorder realm of depression that comes from less daytime and exposure to sunlight.

Overindulgence / Impulse Control
1) Spending. I love to gift. I like to buy things for the people I care about that I know they will enjoy. As with many self employed individuals the holiday season tends to be leaner for me financially than others. So pair the most expensive part of the year with the least income and the fact that I can be totally swayed by a “good deal.” I go ahead and budget in November for gifting per person and cost of any extra events I plan to attend over the holidays. I also try to keep all my Christmas expenses grouped together on one card so they are trackable at the end of season. The goal is not to create financial hole over the last two months that we spend the entire next year digging out of.
2) Food. My absolute favorite food in the world is Fantasy Fudge. Martha Washington Bon Bons are a close second. I could eat both until I was sick. The holidays are filled with sugar, butter & cream based dishes. It is a time of year where indulgence is even encouraged. Our brains can take things to the max. The goal is with moderation. Just like with spending, you want to avoid making choices during this time of year, that you will pay for months into the next year.
3) Alcohol & Substances. Tie in all the other factors, short days, family triggers, stressful schedules, it is an easy time to turn to substances for comfort. Again there may even be environmental factors that support this more than other times of year – everyone gets drunk at the corporate Christmas party right? If you have historically struggled with substance use/abuse, it’s helpful to have a plan in place. Do you need a little extra support in the form of meetings, therapy/coaching or even just having an accountability talk with a friend? Know your limits before you find yourself in situations that test them. Are you in a place of total abstinence – cope ahead your scripting for how you would like to reply if someone asks why you aren’t drinking.

Chances are, if you’re neurodivergent you’re dealing with at least one (if not all) from every single category. That’s a lot of vulnerability factors interacting to create a nice web of chaos in your brain. The goal is to avoid that meltdown, hide in your bed for two weeks place. Having mindfulness of our vulnerabilities is half the puzzle. Being aware and able to label what is going on definitely helps.

The second half is intentionality. Mindfulness in what you commit to. Mindfulness in how you consume. It’s totally ok to prioritize your own sanity over attending to the desires of everyone around you. Pay attention to your emotional battery. Just like your phone, once you get to the red – it goes down way faster. If you’re bordering on overload find a way to carve out some time for yourself to do whatever replenishes your soul.

For more DBT based tips on handling these holiday vulnerability factors, head on over to YouTube to check out my DBT Skills for the Holidays video series.

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Published by Jamie Schmidt

Just a human being on a journey of self discovery. Psychology + Spirit + Healing

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