The festive season, particularly during another Covid-19 wave, can present triggering situations for many people.
A counselling psychologist offers advice for building tolerance and coping mechanisms for the interpersonal conflicts and distressing or uncomfortable situations that may arise at this time of year, and which could be compounded by the pandemic.
“Many of us may find it difficult to regulate our emotions when faced with distressing situations, such as family tensions, financial pressures, dealing with loss or worry about the future,” said Zain Julies, a psychologist practising at Netcare Akeso Milnerton.
“Looking for ways to deal with distress, we may find ourselves reaching for the old familiar ‘crutches’ such as alcohol, food, over-the-counter medication, reliance on social media and technology, or unhealthy relationships with certain people,” she said.
“At this time of year, which is so often associated with indulgence, it may be easier to fall into unhealthy patterns with short-term fixes. It can be helpful to remember that such choices often don’t make us feel better in the long run and can frequently make things worse than before.”
Julies suggests taking a moment to reflect on “what is in my control, and what is not?” in times of stress, to provide a reality check on what falls within one’s circle of influence.
“The things that I have direct control over include my thoughts, my words, my actions, my decisions, my attitude and my mood. Secondly, there are aspects of life that we may be able to influence, such as other people’s actions, where we work, and who follows us on social media,” she added.
“Thirdly, there are things we may be concerned about that are simply not within our control, such as lockdown restrictions, the weather, media, a sports match, traffic, or our past decisions, choices and behaviour.
“While we may not be able to control these factors, what we can control is our reactions to them. Accept that worrying will not change the situation and will not make you feel any better.
“Instead, one can choose to refocus on being mindfully present, making the most of this time of year and our loved ones.”
Julies points out there are techniques one can learn to manage unpleasant situations without losing control and acting destructively.
“One of the approaches that has proved effective for many people in dealing with interpersonal conflict is dialectical behaviour therapy [DBT], which is an evidence-based form of therapy that can also be helpful in treating personality disorders and certain mental health conditions,” she said.
DBT is one of many approaches that mental health professionals at Netcare Akeso facilities can offer to assist clients, either as part of an inpatient treatment programme or on an outpatient basis.
A particularly useful tool within the DBT framework is distress tolerance, defined as “the ability to tolerate distress without acting on it”.
“These skills empower you to survive an immediate crisis without making it worse, as it can be tempting to react impulsively in times when we may be overwhelmed by emotions,” Zain said.
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“Distress tolerance equips the person with the skills to temporarily distract and distance themselves from emotional pain, creating a pause that enables them to act more effectively in the situation.”
“One of the easiest ways to deal with distressing situations or emotions is to focus on your five senses to ground yourself.
“If you are feeling overwhelmed, find five things that you can see, four things that you can hear, three things that you can touch, two things that you can smell and one thing that you can taste.
“This simple exercise in mindfulness can help prevent you doing or saying something you may later regret.”
Another skill that Julies suggests may prove helpful in times of frustration or when festive cheer wears thin is known as the STOP skill, which stands for:
“This puts a pause between your feelings and the urge to do anything. In addition to these skills, self-care is important to get through the year-end break, whatever challenges it may present,” Julies said.
“Take care of yourself and your mental health all year round.
“For information about mental health issues and services, accessing care, and for professional help in a mental health crisis, Netcare Akeso is here to help. In the event of a psychological crisis, emergency support can be reached on 08610-435-787, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”