How To Handle Big Emotions + 10 Tips To Reduce Holiday Stress

When thinking of the holiday season, many of us with ADHD experience mixed emotions. We delight in the joy of the season, and we look forward to reconnecting with those we love.

Women stressed sitting in front of Christmas tree

At the same time, many of us feel a rush of overwhelm thinking about our extra-long to-do list.

Anxiety fills our chest as we imagine the inevitable comments from our mother-in-law or brother. And we worry about keeping our big emotions contained without getting completely dysregulated.

Here’s the deal.

As ADHD brains, we experience our emotions more intensely than the neurotypical brain.

In fact, according to Joel Nigg, Ph.D., “for many, emotional dysregulation is one of the most difficult symptoms to manage.”

No wonder so many of us have such a mixed response to the hustle and bustle of the season!

Here’s the good news.

There are powerful ways to help us regulate our emotions and find delight in the season more often.

And that’s exactly what we’re talking about in Episode 173 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast. 

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:   

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

In Episode #173: How To Handle Big Emotions + 10 Tips To Reduce Holiday Stress, You’ll Discover…

  • What emotional dysregulation is
  • Why people with ADHD navigate such big emotions
  • Pre-coaching exercise: 10 powerful questions to help support yourself through these emotions and show up the way you want to

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Episode #173: How To Handle Big Emotions + 10 Tips To Reduce Holiday Stress (Transcript)

10 Tips To Reduce Holiday Stress

It’s now mid-November, which means that many of us are looking at about six weeks of hustle and bustle ahead.

Whether that’s the end of the semester for my teachers and students out there, filling quotas during the fourth quarter for work, attending holiday parties and family gatherings, or maybe it’s a combination of everything, which is the case for many of us.

Now, this can be a really fun time on so many levels – especially when we think about holidays and gatherings – since it presents this opportunity to connect with so many different people in different capacities.

Perhaps you’re getting together with people you don’t get to see very often. Or maybe you see them pretty frequently, but now you’re spending an extended period of time with them – perhaps spending the week at your inlaws, for example.

Maybe you’re getting together with those you see regularly, but you’re gathering in a different capacity. For example, if you’re used to seeing your colleagues on a Zoom screen in work meetings, it might feel different when you see them in person at the company party.

We can see an increase in interactions with lots of people around this time of year, which is both amazing and occasionally challenging.

This is a challenge because these interactions also bring up opportunities for miscommunication, saying the wrong thing, or awkward interactions.

Many of us are interacting with at least one other person – whether in person or virtually – on a daily basis. Whether it’s your immediate family, the pharmacist at CVS, or your colleagues via Zoom or Slack, you are interacting with people regularly.

Our interactions are just often heightened during the busy holiday season. Plus, for those of us who live in cold weather areas of the world, we’re often indoors with these people for extended periods of time, which makes the topic of this episode all the more appropriate for this time of year.

So today we are talking about how to best prepare yourself for these interactions during the holidays.

Because while we do have these wonderful opportunities to connect, we also have opportunities to experience misunderstandings, fights, and passive-aggressive remarks. We have opportunities to take on too much, to start feeling overwhelmed, and perhaps feel more short-tempered than we’d like around those we love.

What is Emotional Regulation?

For those of us with ADHD, many of us also navigate emotional dysregulation.

It is literally more challenging for us to regulate our emotions.

In fact, according to Attitude magazine, “people with ADHD feel emotions more intensely than do people without the condition. For many, emotional dysregulation is one of the most difficult symptoms to manage.”

So, because of this, those of us with ADHD or who identify with ADHD tendencies might find ourselves having emotional reactions that are potentially out of proportion to what we might expect given the circumstance that’s unfolding in front of us.

We may have a lower tolerance for feelings of frustration and irritation.

We might feel completely overwhelmed by a flood of emotions.

Because many of us are quite sensitive, our system might be completely overstimulated by all of the noise and the lights and the bustle of the parties and gatherings.

With this in mind, it’s often challenging for us to focus our attention away from these strong emotions. We may have a hard time calming and self-soothing ourselves when these big emotions arise in our bodies.

This is an everyday struggle for most ADHD brains. Then when you add in that additional stimulation during the holidays with people, parties, gifts, timelines, and a lack of regular routine and structure, it’s easy to find ourselves more dysregulated.

Now, I also want to mention that if emotional dysregulation is NOT a challenge for you, there are still likely interactions with other people where you find yourself on edge or unsettled.

Regardless of where you are on that spectrum, I want to first of all normalize this. It is absolutely human to experience these emotions when we interact with other people.


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Self-Sooth Your Big Emotions

What’s more, if we are struggling to navigate our big emotions, the good news is there are different ways we can support ourselves.

There are different strategies we can put in place to help us show up in the way that we want to around other people.

We can focus on establishing effective tools and putting systems in place to take care of ourselves in a way that feels most supportive for our brains.

There are plenty of opportunities to experience these big emotions over the next six weeks

woman stressed during holidays

A few scenarios that might sound familiar:

  • Your brother takes a verbal jab at you, as he always does when you show up a couple of minutes late to dinner with the family
  • Reaching your limit of passive-aggressive comments from your mother-in-law when staying at your in-laws for several days
  • Your colleague taking all the credit for the holiday party that’s a huge hit, which you actually planned and organized at the expense of your executive functions

No matter what is giving your stress this holiday season, I’m here help you figure out how to best navigate in a way that’s supportive of you.

Will this mean that you won’t ever feel frustrated or irritated?

Does this mean that you will never feel overwhelmed during the holiday season again?

Does it mean that you won’t ever feel uncomfortable emotions if somebody says something that seems unkind?

No. You’re still going to be a human. In fact, it would be weird if you felt happy if somebody said something unkind. You want to feel bad about that.

But again, we can support ourselves ahead of time so that the emotions aren’t unmanageable. So that we don’t get entirely dysregulated.

We can take care of ourselves in the way that we need to so that we’re able to let the comment go or remove ourselves from a situation, or set boundaries if needed.

Similarly, we’re able to slow down if we’re caught up in the whirlwind of overwhelm. We can notice when we’re thinking about all the unfinished lists and the deadlines and the demands of the season, and put supports in place to stop the spinning before we get stuck in the spin cycle.

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How To Support Yourself With Emotional Information

So how do we do this? How do we support ourselves when we’re experiencing our big emotions during the holidays?

There are many different approaches out there, from listening to music to exercising to journaling to processing emotion, and all of them are incredibly useful tools to have in your toolkit.

Today, however, we’re going to talk about a concept I love to use with my clients, which is coaching our brains ahead of time.

I once heard Jody Moore label it as pre-coaching. Sort of like pregaming, but rather than getting together before the game begins, we’re getting your brain ready before the interactions or experiences that you anticipate over the busy weeks ahead.

The reason why I love this approach of pre-coaching is that there’s so much power in getting our prefrontal cortex online and thinking through what could otherwise be challenging situations ahead of time.

If you’re anything like me, when you’re in the heat of the moment and you’re completely overwhelmed and spinning, or you’re feeling defensive or hurt after hearing someone say something, it’s easy to react immediately.

The prefrontal cortex – the executive part of our brain that loves to think logically and clearly – seems to disappear at these times. In fact, it’s this part of the brain that comes back online after the fact with perfect 20/20 hindsight saying, “you know, it probably would have been better if we had done this.” You know what I’m talking about, right?

With the practice of pre-coaching, we are going to…

  • Bring the prefrontal cortex online ahead of time.
  • Engage this part of our brain so that we can plan ahead and prepare for these interactions or situations when we have, historically, felt rather uncomfortable.
  • Practice playing out the situation ahead of time and visualizing what might happen.
  • Engage our imagination and go to the worst-case scenario of what we’re really worried might happen.
  • Try and understand why this situation might unfold this way and look at it from different perspectives.
  • Decide ahead of time how we want to show up if and when that situation unfolds as we imagine.
  • Put supports in place to help you better follow through on that plan and show up in the way that you want to.

Now again, it won’t be perfect. These exercises will not turn you into a robot without emotion. You’ll still be human. However, when you do these exercises ahead of time, I promise you it will help.

Now, I also want to make a caveat that as we explore these exercises and think about how we want to handle potentially challenging interactions – especially ones that involve other people and other people’s comments that we find unkind or unhelpful. Or when people show up in a way that is not in alignment with how we want to be treated.

The exercises we’re exploring today are not here to excuse bad or unsafe or unkind behavior.

As always, we’re never to use these tools against ourselves to put up with inappropriate or unsafe situations.

What I’m saying here will make more sense in a moment, but I want to say ahead of time that these tools are not here to use against yourself. They’re not here to excuse someone’s behavior you don’t agree with by thinking something like, “well they just don’t know any better and I do, so I’ll grin and bear it and put up with this behavior. No. As always, you do not have my permission to use these tools against yourself.

Instead, we are using the tools today to help you decide ahead of time how to take care of yourself in a way that comes from a place of love and is most supportive for you.

When we decide from a calm state how we want to show up in challenging situations and make decisions when we are not emotionally dysregulated, it helps ensure that we’re showing up how we want to as much as possible.

Pre-coaching Exercise: Reduce Emotional Dysregulation During The Holidays

10 questions to reduce holiday stress

I love to do this kind of pre-coaching exercise with my clients. I think it’s really impactful to think through potential scenarios and create plans to help support ourselves through them, so if you want to take the concepts further, join us in We’re Busy Being Awesome. We have early enrollment open for the next cohort and I’d love to have you join us!

To get started I’ll give you some practical tools to help you prepare.

I’m going to offer a handful of questions with some explanations and examples. And I encourage you to listen through for the arch of the exercise, and then return to these questions and actually answer them.

1. Feelings about An Upcoming Event/Interaction

As you think about your life right now, what is an event or gathering that you have coming up or an interaction you’re going to have with a certain person or group of people, and how do you feel about it?

Chances are there’s something on your mind or on your calendar – whether it’s dinner with your family, the neighborhood new year’s party, or a team meeting to talk through where you’re at for Q4. Bring that situation up in your mind first.

  • As you identify that event or that interaction, how do you feel about it?
  • What emotions do you experience when you think about this event or this interaction?

Is it anxiety? Dread? Excitement? Worry? What are you feeling when you think about this upcoming experience?

2. Why Will I Feel This Way?

Next, as you think about this experience and the emotions you anticipate, check in with yourself and ask,

  • Why do I think you’ll feel this way?
  • Why do I anticipate those emotions specifically?

Listen with curiosity – not with judgment – for all of the reasons. They are all valid. They all deserve to be heard.

Maybe it’s “I don’t fit in.” Or “I never do anything right.” “There is so much to do before the event or the meeting.” Whatever the reasons, get them all out.

3. Is There Something Specific You Are Worried About?

Now let’s zoom in further and get even more specific.

  • Thinking about this event or this interaction, is there a certain person or people whom you are particularly worried about?
  • Or is there a specific experience you’re worried might happen?

Maybe you feel anxious thinking about seeing your mother-in-law or your sister. Maybe it’s the way you feel when everybody’s talking loudly and there’s music playing and you can’t hear yourself think.

Is there something specific that seems especially important to note?

4. Let’s Get Even More Specific

Staying zoomed in on this specific person or experience, what specifically has you feeling uncomfortable?

Perhaps you are worried about the comments they’ll make about your job or your appearance or your parenting.

Maybe you think you have to show up to the neighborhood party in a particular way and mask any ADHD symptoms so you appear as the person who has everything together.

As you continue exploring the questions, this is a gentle reminder to be kind to yourself. Remind your brain if it’s feeling uncomfortable that we’re simply exploring here without judgment.

5. What’s The Worst Case Scenario?

Okay, so we’ve identified the thing or person, we’ve gotten specific about it, and we’ve created some clarity on what we’re feeling.

The next step is to gently ask your brain what it’s most worried about here.

If you are a person who is prone to panic attacks or have high anxiety you might skip this question and go onto the next.

But if you’re able to explore it…

  • What do you anticipate could happen?
  • What is the worst case?  

The truth is, we can’t control other humans. And since this person has acted this way many times in the past. Or that experience has unfolded in this way in the past, it’s possible that it might happen again this year, too.

Again, this question may feel uncomfortable for your brain, but if you’re willing, allow it to go there.

  • What do you think they will say?
  • What do you think they will do?
  • Or what do you think they will not say or not do?

Maybe you think your sister in law will make that look when you show up for dinner. Maybe you’re anticipating your boss making a passive-aggressive comment about your team’s performance for Q4.

Whatever it is, what specifically do you anticipate happening – likely because you have good evidence that it’s happened before and we can’t control the other humans.

6. Why Do You Think This Experience Tends To Happen?

Coming from a place of curiosity and non-judgment…

  • Why do you think this person does or doesn’t do these things?
  • Or why do you think this experience always unfolds this way?

Let’s step into their mindset or step back to look at the bigger picture. Why does it make sense that it’s unfolding this way?

And again, we are not excusing behavior. Instead, we are stepping into their shoes to try and see their perspective.

Maybe every year you expect your partner to help with Thanksgiving preparations, and every year they find some reason not to. Or your boss often makes these kinds of comments. Why do you think this is the case? You. May find a reason like, “my boss is likely under pressure from his boss and is passing that onto my team.” Again, this doesn’t excuse his behavior.

We’re just trying to get a look at it from a more detached perspective. Alternatively, there may not be a reason. And your answer might be, “they do it this way because that’s what they’ve always done.” Give yourself the space to explore and see what you find.

7. What Experience Do You Want To Create?

Knowing that this person will likely show up in the way that they always have, or that the holiday party on your side of the family will be loud and chaotic just as it always is, what experience do you want to create for yourself?

  • What experience do you want to have even though the situation may not go as you’d like?

Maybe you want to enjoy time with your family, and when you need a break from all the noise and excess stimulation, you step outside and go for a walk.

Perhaps you decide to connect with that group of friends at the party, but make sure to have minimal interaction with Jared the one upper. Again, how do you want that experience to unfold when that likely situation does happen?

8. How Can You Make This Happen?

Then, once you create clarity on how you want your experience to unfold, it’s time to ask yourself, how can I make that happen? How can we help ensure that you create that experience for yourself as much as possible?

  • What are the steps that we can take or prepare ahead of time?
  • What are resources you can turn to if you find yourself feeling dysregulated?
  • Who are the safe people you can vent to if you need to get something off your chest?
  • How can you set yourself up for success ahead of time to make this ideal situation as likely as possible?

9. What Can You Do To Take Care of Yourself?

When the inevitable does happen, and the person says the thing, or you find yourself entirely overwhelmed and slipping into the spin cycle, or your sister does that look that she always does, what can you do to take care of you?

What are the supports that you need and that your body needs to regulate? Some ideas You can think about…

  • Step away for 10 minutes and breathe
  • Go outside for some fresh air and movement
  • Leave the dinner from a place of love for yourself because you’re not willing to tolerate people speaking to you that way
  • Squeeze your partner’s hand and ask them ahead of time to squeeze your hand back so you know that they’re there with you
  • Have a couple of meditations pulled up on your phone so you can step into the bathroom and listen
  • Step into your bedroom and journal for a few minutes

Think about the different supports you can put in place to take care of yourself, allow your body to experience the emotion, and bring your prefrontal cortex back online.

10. What Can You Think To Yourself?

What can you think to yourself to help you remember these tools in the moment?

When you start noticing that feeling of tension in your chest or sinking in your gut or spinning in your mind, what can you think to yourself to help you feel grounded and use these resources you planned ahead of time?

I encourage you to think of a phrase or two that will help bring you back.

My two current favorite thoughts, which I’ve shared multiple times on the podcast, are

“This is the part where…” and, “that’s just so and so being so and so.”

In other words, this is the part where I feel completely overstimulated. This is that part of the party. Now that I’m overstimulated, I’m going to step out and go for a 30-minute walk.

Or when “Jared the one upper” is trying to one-up every story you have to offer, perhaps you think to yourself, “that’s Jared being Jared. Right on time.” And that thought brings you back to the present.

It might even bring a little bit of humor to the situation. And you excuse yourself to go talk with someone else.


Want To Join Our Group Coaching Program?!

I will be opening the doors for the next cohort of We’re Busy Being Awesome in a couple of weeks!

Add your name to the waitlist so you’ll be the first to know about program dates and times, plus how you can sign up if it’s a great fit for you.


Final Thoughts

So those are the ten pre-coaching questions that I love to explore.

I encourage you to use these questions often. Give your future self a gift this season, and reflect on each one.

Do this pre-coaching, and notice how your experience of these interactions this holiday season shifts.

If you’d like to take this work further, do come join us in We’re Busy Being Awesome. Pre-enrollment is open for the next cohort, and I’d love to have you in there so we can really dig in, coach our brains, be with those emotions, and put these strategies to use.

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