As your radio no doubt reminds you every five minutes, for many people December is "the most wonderful time of the year." But for a sizable minority of people the festive season is anything but joyous.
Thanks to a surge in commitments, financial stress, difficult family dynamics, or triggers for those dealing with loss, the holidays can be difficult for those already struggling with mental health issues. One 2014 survey from the National Alliance on Mental Health found a hefty 64 percent of people with mental illness say the holidays make their conditions worse.
So how do you cope if you fall into this less-than-festive group? There are tons of tips out there advising people to do everything from limit social commitments to volunteer to bring joy to others, but for those who are always in the market for more tricks to add to your toolbox, a new study offers a quirky but effective way to cope with your sadness.
The Inside Out approach to conquering sadness
Have you seen the Pixar movie Inside Out? For those who missed it, it's about the inner workings of a girl's emotions, with each feeling, from Joy to Sadness, personified and sent on an adventure together. It's a great movie, but why am I asking? As Mona Chalabi explained in the UK Guardian recently, this new mental health trick resembles the film.
The technique comes from an international group of researchers. The team recently recruited volunteers to play the role of Pixar artists, instructing the volunteers to imagine exactly what sadness would look like personified. How does he/she appear, behave, and talk? What would you say or do if you crossed paths with sadness?
After this quirky, creative exercise the researchers then measured participants' emotional state. This simple act of imagination had significant positive effects, they found.
"By picturing their sadness with human traits and characteristics, study participants ameliorated its effect and were then more likely to display self-control," Chalabi reports. The trick even helped participants make smarter choices about food and spending.
You might think that's just because the exercise served as a weird but welcome distraction from whatever was bothering the glummer participants. But the reason playing Pixar works goes deeper than that. Imagining your emotions as fleshed out figures gives you distance from them, and that seems to be what brings people relief.
"The underlying mechanics of it is detachment - when they think about sadness as a person, it's like they are endowing independence to the emotion," commented study author Li Yang. "They feel detached from it, and that's why they would feel less sad afterwards."
For a happier holiday, play Pixar.
Chalabi goes on to provide an in-depth look at other research suggesting distancing ourselves from uncomfortable emotions provides relief from them. It's well worth a read in full if you're fascinated by psychology. But for those just looking for quick-and-dirty advice to help you cope with your holidays blues, here's the bottom line.
Next time your crazy family or overtaxed schedule is pushing you to the breaking point, take a moment to picture what your sadness, frustration, or grief would look like if it were walking and talking in front of you. Not only is this a distraction from your least favorite uncle or that annoying Christmas party attendee, but these new findings suggest it will help you better cope with your painful feelings and enjoy the season more.