The line, circle, and triangle that can help you with your holiday anxiety

The line, circle, and triangle that can help you with your holiday anxiety
Image: Library of Congress
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Pack your emotional baggage: It’s time for the holidays.

In the midst of the cheer, a lot of people experience guilt, anxiety, depression, and other complicated emotions during this time of year. Here are a few exercises that may be helpful in a moment of mental distress, whether you’re feeling lonely, worrying over the future, or stressing about an upcoming family gathering.

All three diagrams come from a common psychiatric model called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. The backbone of the treatment is the understanding that one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are directly connected with one another. Like a feedback loop, thoughts affect the way we feel and behave, so changing negative thought patterns can change negative feelings and actions. These exercises aim to help you break out of unhelpful mental ruts.

Sketch a triangle to identify negative thought patterns

The triangle below provides a way to begin understanding the connection between the thoughts, feelings and behaviors causing you distress. First, at the top of the triangle, write the thought you’re having. For example, perhaps a lot of people couldn’t come to your holiday party this year—leading you to conclude, “Nobody likes me.”

In the other two corners, note the behaviors and feelings that result from this thought. In writing these down, it becomes clear how negative thinking, feelings, and behaviors can reinforce one another, creating a perpetual loop.

In order to disengage from the spiral, the cycle must be interrupted. This isn’t simple, and it may be useful to seek professional help from a therapist. However, the following concepts may provide the nudge needed to challenge at least some confusing or distressing thoughts.

Draw a circle to bring perspective to distorted thoughts

During the holidays, expectations run high, making it easy for us to put a lot of pressure on ourselves and feel guilty or unhappy when our plans don’t work out. Drawing a “responsibility pie” can help you remember there are always multiple factors when things don’t go according to plan. Whatever’s gone wrong, it’s likely not all your fault.

First, draw a circle. Above it, write down the situation that’s causing feelings of guilt or shame. Now, divide up the circle, assigning slices of responsibility to the people and aspects that contributed to the event, making the size of each section relative to the share of culpability. Include yourself, but draw your slice last.

How does this division make you feel about your role in the event?

A responsibility pie is not always meant to minimize guilt. Rather, it is meant to provide a way to realistically assess a situation and offer perspective. And people who feel disproportionate guilt may find comfort knowing they are not fully responsible for unwanted outcomes.

Draw a line to give yourself room to fail

We don’t live in a binary world of black and white, right and wrong, all or nothing. But it’s easy to get stuck in that pattern of thinking, acting as your own harshest critic.

Drawing a seriousness scale can help you find the shades of grey—recognizing partial successes, giving yourself credit for your actions, and making it easier to forgive yourself when things go wrong.

Make a line with one end representing absolute failure, and the other end representing complete, utter perfection. Now, where on that spectrum does your ‘imperfection’ fall? Sure, you undercooked the turkey, but it doesn’t mean you and the dinner are a complete failure—at least everyone had a great time.

If you’re battling irrational guilt or shame, the scale can also be used to realistically assess the seriousness of actions. On one end, imagine the absolute worst-case action. Perhaps pre-meditated murder? On the other end, something benign. Also think of the worst thing you’ve done and mark its location on the line.

Now, where does your recent experience fit? If it helps, step outside yourself and imagine how you would rate the action done by someone else.

If you are realistically assessing the situation­—which admittedly isn’t easy—you’ll never find yourself on one end or the other; always somewhere between the two.

There is no quick-fix solution when confronting difficult thoughts and feelings. If these brief sketches don’t relieve your ruminations, other actions that may help include deep breaths, exercise, talking through issues with those you trust, visiting friends, and taking time to relax.

All the concepts referenced above can be explored in more detail in Mind Over Mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think.

Ultimately, if your thoughts and feelings are intrusive enough that they inhibit your normal day-to-day activities, you might consider speaking with a mental-health professional. In the UK, Mind has resources for getting help. In the US, a good place to start is the National Institute of Mental Health.