How to Have a More Skillful Holiday

How to Have a More Skillful Holiday

The holiday season can bring up a plethora of emotions for all of us and these emotions can be positive, negative, and everything in between. All these emotions, combined with seasonal triggers, can make for some very overwhelming thoughts and can leave us prone to mood swings and emotional dysregulation. While people mean well this time of year, hearing “Happy Holidays!” over and over again can feel a bit invalidating or can invoke feelings like sadness or disappointment if life hasn’t felt so happy lately.

Can anyone relate?

Consider your DBT skills toolbox to be the gift that keeps on giving, especially during the holiday season. Now is the time to put these skills to use.

There are so many, that sometimes they all run together, and it can be difficult to know which one to use or which one will be helpful in a certain situation. So, here’s a little “cheat sheet” for you, so you can start practicing.

Coping Ahead

The best place to start is by Coping Ahead.  Remember to “Do What Works“. I recommend writing out your tried and true Distress Tolerance skills and keep them handy at all times, such as in the notes section of your phone or in your wallet.  Having a list of things that have worked for you can be helpful.

Some ideas:

  • Positive mantras and affirmations for self-talk and self-cheerleading
  • Controlled breathing exercises
  • Reminders of mindfulness activities such as word puzzles or coloring
  • Ideas for distress tolerance and self-soothing

These lists can be helpful both as preventative measures for a crisis and during those challenging moments.


It is important to be present during the holidays, especially because holidays can make us ruminate about the past, bring up painful memories, or cause us worry about the future. Staying in the moment is integral to overall happiness, especially when so many thoughts for what is wished for and wanted come up.

It is also important to stay in touch with your body and mind. Recognizing and acknowledging feelings are okay. There is no need to judge your negative emotions. We will always have them because we are human. Rather than suffocate unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions, ride the wave, and trust that “This too, shall pass.”

Remember that we often don’t know that we need to use distress tolerance skills until the emotion becomes intense or a crisis is occurring. Being mindful of feelings can help you use the skills before things get tough or it is an emergency.

It is also important to be mindful of our triggers and try not to predict negative outcomes. That said, it can be very effective to consider and plan for a negative outcome of a situation. Keep in mind this is not the same as predicting. While it is important to be positive, the holidays can cause some magical thinking: i.e. “This will be the best holiday ever,” or “this relationship will be repaired because it’s holiday time,” or “this day will be the best, it’s the holiday, nothing could go wrong,” or, even “I can’t wait to find a puppy under the tree!”

Unfortunately, we may not always get what we wish for, even a puppy, and it may not always be that bad. Remember that a dialectic consists of two truths and try not to get caught up in black and white thinking. This time of year can be joyful and it can also be depressing at the same time. When we ignore emotions or tell ourselves not to feel them, we will then be caught off-guard when they eventually surface. Avoiding or suppressing thoughts can be great distress tolerance skills, but please remember to eventually return to them to problem solve and/or prevent emotional build-up!

Self Care

‘Tis the season for self-soothing. During a time of year so focused on giving to others, which can be incredibly fulfilling, please remember to give to yourself first and foremost in the form of self care. Making yourself a self-soothing kit to keep close can be helpful. How do you make one? Remember your five senses and include something from each one that comforts you and evokes positive thoughts, emotions or memories.

Some ideas:

  • Vision – a photo that makes you smile, or a silly meme that makes you laugh.
  • Hear – make a playlist of your favorite songs and keep it on your phone.
  • Touch – putty, a swatch of soothing fabric such as velvet, a “squishy” or stress ball, hand cream or a little stuffed animal.
  • Taste – a small square of your favorite chocolate, a single wrapped candy, or gum and mints to mindfully consume.
  • Smell – a small sample or tester of a yummy scented perfume or body spray, that square of your favorite chocolate, or hand cream.


Distress Tolerance Distraction Plan

Another great cope-ahead skill is to create a Distress Tolerance distraction plan in a corner of your room or home. Take the time to queue up some movies or shows you want to watch, bookmark some funny online videos, or set aside some books you want to read. Put all your distress tolerance apps (hello meditation, relaxation and mindful games) in a folder on your phone. That way, when the stress and emotions hit, you don’t have to take the time to decide what to do. It will all be there waiting for you.

To make a distress tolerance corner of your room or home, think creatively. This could include:

  • Comfy pillows
  • A cozy, soft blanket
  • Your favorite sweats or PJ’s
  • A yummy scented candle or room spray
  • Your favorite candy or snack…to eat slowly and mindfully
  • Pictures or posters of things and people that make you happy

The possibilities are endless and this can always be a work in progress and is a distress tolerance activity in and of itself. It’s fun to think of interesting ways to add to it.

Emotion Regulation

Holidays can cause isolation. Friends and family may be traveling, or we may be traveling and not with our go-to people. We may avoid certain people or situations because we are afraid of the emotions they will trigger. This may mean loneliness, fear, social anxiety and then missing out on moments that may end up being okay.

Try to remember that feelings are not facts. They can most definitely trick us and feel one and the same. You may feel that being with family will be too triggering, and thinking mistakes such as catastrophic thinking are at high risk. Therefore, you may miss out. It is always best to use your stop skill and make a wise mind decision and do what is best for you. It is okay to say “No” to situations that you feel will ultimately hurt you. A good example of this is avoiding an alcohol-fueled party if you are trying to get or stay sober. To decide what to do in what seems like a black and white situation, use the four box pros and cons list to help you decide, or reach out for help from a trusted loved one or therapist.

Remember to use your ACCEPTS skills (Activities, Contributing, Comparisons, Emotions, Pushing-away, Thoughts and Sensations). My go-tos this time of year are activities and contribute. In the spirit of giving, try to do an activity that benefits others. By doing so, you will benefit yourself and most definitely raise your mood.

Some suggestions:

  • Make holiday cookies and bring them to friends/neighbors/doormen, a soup kitchen, church or your nearest fire or police department.
  • Bring some dog treats to your local shelter or vet. Better yet, Google a recipe for homemade ones!
  • Find a soup kitchen and volunteer.
  • Buy some toys for donation.
  • Clean out your closets and donate clothes. Organizing and cleansing, especially at the start of a new year can feel so refreshing.

Write! Keep your DBT Diary Card going. Let your thoughts out. If you are on a break from therapy, due to holiday schedules, write your thoughts out so you can discuss them when your sessions resume.  Intense feelings over the holidays may end with the holidays, or not feel so important to discuss after, yet would be healthy to process as you cope ahead for next year.

Remember the importance of the biological components of Emotion Regulation. Tempted to lay in bed all day? Use Opposite Action.

Check the facts: make sure you are getting enough fresh air and sunlight. Shorter days and more darkness can rob us of vitamin D, feel isolating and entrapping. The cold weather may make us not want to go outside and it’s important bundle up and get into nature as much as possible. Walk your dog (or a neighbor’s dog), shovel some snow (bonus: this is also contributing), go walk and see some holiday decorations. Just get out! As self-soothing as loafing around in PJs watching Netflix can be, nothing is healthy in extremes. Don’t feel guilty if you do stay in and watch Netflix, just be sure to take some breaks to get some air and interact with other humans (who aren’t behind screens!).

Follow a Schedule

While sleeping in and having nowhere to be seems like heaven sometimes, the key word here is sometimes. Disrupting nocturnal rhythms and schedules can increase emotional relativity and cause mood swings. Try to keep your sleep schedule as normal as possible. This is also a great cope-ahead for when you head back to school or work after the holidays, and re-entry can be tough!

At the same time, continue to do the things you do that build mastery, such as studying or practicing an instrument or sport. You will feel great about yourself when life goes back into full post-holiday swing and you are prepared.

Remember to balance eating and get enough water. Eating schedules can get all out of sorts and the wonderful holiday sweets and treats can make our blood sugar crash. Indulge, yet make sure you are getting protein, veggies and fruit, fat and whole grains as well. One cannot survive on cookies and pie alone! Drink enough water. Cold weather can make us less thirsty. Remember to hydrate. And, sweat it out a bit for those endorphins. Even if it’s dancing like crazy at a holiday party or in your room. Do what works! The tipp skills can really help change a mood.

Manage Expectations

Finally, manage expectations. This can be applied to so many things, starting with those magical Christmas stories we see in movies! Manage your expectations for gifts, for the food, and for other’s emotions. Review your interpersonal effectiveness skills. Try to turn the mind and not take things so personally by recognizing that the holidays can be hard for everyone. Instead of expectations, try to focus on intentions, of others and of yourself. If you get mindful and look closely, you may be surprised of all the good that exists and is projected towards you.

We are all doing the best we can.

And to all, a very skillful holiday!


Authored by: Jaime Gleicher, LMSW