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It’s that time of year again — the holidays are upon us! We all want that to mean family, parties, and good cheer. But what if that isn’t working out for you? What if you have trouble getting along with your family or you have trouble navigating drinking at holiday parties? Join us as Dr. Nicole Washington helps us out with some quick hints and tips for surviving the holiday season.

Dr. Nicole Washington

Dr. Nicole Washington is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she attended Southern University and A&M College. After receiving her BS degree, she moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to matriculate at the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. She completed residency in psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. Since completion of her residency training, Dr. Washington has spent most of her career caring for and being an advocate for those who are not typically consumers of mental health services, namely underserved communities, those with severe mental illness, and high performing professionals. Through her private practice, podcast, speaking and writing, she seeks to provide education in efforts to decrease the stigma associated with psychiatric illness. Find out more at DrNicolePsych.com.

Gabe Howard

Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can get a week free just by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into the show today we have Dr. Nicole Washington. Dr. Washington attended Southern University and A&M College, and she completed her residency in psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. Dr. Washington has spent most of her career caring for and being an advocate for those who are not typically consumers of mental health services, namely underserved communities, those with severe mental illness and high-performing professionals. She seeks to decrease the stigma associated with psychiatric illnesses through all of her work. Dr. Washington, welcome to the show.

Dr. Nicole Washington: Hi, thank you for having me.

Gabe Howard: I am excited that you are here because the holidays are upon us, and while this can absolutely be a joyous time of year, it can also be stressful and negatively impact our collective mental health. Now, before we jump into all of our questions, I want to say unequivocally there are no perfect holidays and even all of the wisdom that we are going to share today won’t work one hundred percent of the time or work for everyone. I think part of managing the stress of this season is to accept that the Hallmark Channel is not an actual representation of what the holiday season is actually like. Dr. Washington, what are your thoughts on managing our expectations?

Dr. Nicole Washington: If we can manage our expectations, I mean, that’s the biggest part, right? We all have, or most of us have, I’ll speak for myself. That relative that it’s always going to say something inappropriate at the holiday, that person who’s going to comment on your weight or are you still single or why aren’t you married yet? Or bring up uncomfortable things. We all have that person. We know who they are. Yet every year we go into the holidays thinking this might be the year that that person changes and when they don’t, we’re disappointed and frustrated every single time. So managing our expectations is huge.

Gabe Howard: I’ve always noticed that in a lot of these shows, blogs, videos, even on the nightly news that all of the surviving the holidays, managing the holidays is always centered around this idea that people want to be around their families. So I thought I’d flip the script and ask you, what advice do you have for someone who just doesn’t want to be around their families for the holidays? They just don’t like it.

Dr. Nicole Washington: Yeah, I know that’s hard for some people to wrap their hands around that some people too much family is a problem for the holidays and just so nobody out there is thinking, who doesn’t want to be around their family? People have varied levels of relationship with people that are in their family. Sometimes families are split and there’s mom and dad, step dads, step families, and it’s just very difficult for some people to maneuver. And that can just be sensory overload. I definitely tell people, let’s be strategic about that day. Let’s plan those days, if you have to go to multiple locations, let’s make sure we are timing that appropriately and giving you breaks in between, right? You might need a coffee run between two homes, a coffee run that includes sitting in a parking lot and listening to a meditation for 10 minutes. Like, you might need to break and plan strategic breaks within your stops, even within a particular home that you have to go to or an event that you feel like you’re obligated to go to. Because remember, we don’t have to do anything. We choose to do these things. We don’t have to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas or any holiday with anyone. We choose to do these things because they are family and we love them and we do it because we want to.

Dr. Nicole Washington: And I think it’s important to even keep that mindset in play because it makes you feel less hopeless or less like you don’t have a choice or you’re stuck. You’re choosing to do this. And if I do, it doesn’t mean I have to pull a 12 hour shift, right? I don’t have to go at 7:00 a.m. and not be able to leave until 7:00 p.m. I can set the expectation up front with them. Hey, I can come, but I can only stay for four hours because I have some other things going on. And then at the end of that four hours, you can do whatever you want. You can go. If you want to have your mysterious next event be canceled because things are going well and you want to stay, you can stay. You can do whatever you want. You’re in charge of your own schedule.

Gabe Howard: Do you have any recommendations for how to keep the peace when those uncomfortable conversations, whether they be have you gained weight? Have you lost weight? Why aren’t you married? Did you get a new job yet or even somebody just bringing up politics or religion or money, which are always great argument starters?

Dr. Nicole Washington: Always, always, always, always. You know, I think it is extremely important for individuals to come into those settings knowing what are the boundaries I need to set? We’ve all had the relative who says the inappropriate thing and everybody at the table cringes like, Oh, here we go. We know it’s coming. We know, we know, we know. But why do we keep having those conversations? Like, What’s the value? What is the value really? Like, what’s the value in bringing up politics most recent, most recent political climate? What’s the point in bringing any of that stuff up if we know that there are varying views sitting at the table and we know it’s going to lead to disaster? So either you can let that disaster happen or you can decide up front this is what we’re going to do and this is what we’re not going to do. We want to enjoy each other as family today. For this one day, can we not bring up anything having to do with elections or presidents or politics? Or let’s just not talk about these topics today. We want to have a very pleasant dinner.

Dr. Nicole Washington: And I don’t think that’s unreasonable or avoiding, you know, what’s going on. I just think we can’t always drag that stuff into everything because we love these people. They’re our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, uncles. We love them, we really love them and would like to spend a pleasant time with them, even if it is just one day. So if we can agree ahead of time like, Hey, this Thanksgiving, Christmas, we’re just not going to talk about that stuff, OK? We’re family focused. We’re just going to enjoy each other’s company. And that’s just how it’s going to be this year. But setting boundaries like that, even if you have to set individual boundaries, right? And you have to be willing to stand up for yourself and not allow those things to happen. And that may mean cutting your time short, but being disrespected, being talked down to it’s just not. It’s not a good thing. There’s nothing good that can come of continuing to take that kind of treatment.

Gabe Howard: So many people believe that if they have to leave earlier, if they have to lock themselves in the bathroom, if they have to go stand outside or do a coffee run around the block, that somehow a failure has occurred. Now I tend to look at that as self care, as setting a boundary, as sticking up for yourself. But so many people believe that if they have to do any of those things that I just mentioned, something bad happened or that they have done something wrong. Can you speak to that to help folks reframe that self-care and standing up for yourself is actually a very positive step in our mental health?

Dr. Nicole Washington: Oh, my gosh, standing up for yourself is, I mean, it’s so freeing when you stand up to that person, when you set that boundary, you know you’re not being rude when you set a boundary, right? If you’re setting boundaries well, it’s not rude at all. It’s setting an expectation between you and that person. Boundaries protect us from being mistreated, but boundaries also help the other person, right? When you set a boundary in a relationship with someone, it really is to help that relationship. So if you think about that coffee break, going into the bathroom and doing that five minute meditation in between dessert and the main meal, when you do those things, you’re not a failure. You’re setting boundaries with the experience. You’re setting boundaries with the people and that helps those relationships. I mean, it helps, because it allows you to regroup. It allows you to gather yourself to where you’re not at risk, I won’t say not at risk, less at risk of saying something impulsively or kind of going off on people at the table. It helps that experience. It doesn’t hurt it. And if you feel like you failed in some way, then you know, I would recommend you really consider thinking through but what are the positives? What are the pros and cons of me taking this break and then reminding yourself that that really helps to strengthen that experience because you being able to take a break can save you from a lot of heartache down the road.

Gabe Howard: We’ve, of course, been spending a lot of time talking about, Hey, my family stresses me out or there’s arguments in my family or all the things that we are sort of stereotypically trained to think about families and the holidays. But let’s flip the script a little bit and talk about the mental health challenges of people who want to be with their families. But because they live out of town or maybe their families are in the military and deployed or have to work that day and they can’t spend the day with their family. So, for example, for those who live far away from family, how can they avoid being lonely for the holidays or managing that, that sadness of not being able to be with their family?

Dr. Nicole Washington: Yeah, it a real thing. I work with a lot of professionals and a lot of them have moved across the country from their families, and so they don’t get to do the big Thanksgivings. I work with a lot of doctors, they’re on-call or don’t have enough days off to be able to go home. And so this is really stressful for some people, especially those families who have heard the first part of this interview and thought, Man, I’m glad I’m not in that family. So the first thing is, I think if we’ve learned nothing else this past year and a half, it’s that Zoom has been, or any of the platforms right, have been a very valuable, valuable tool to keep us connected when we can’t be together. I think a lot of us have never even considered having a virtual meal with our loved ones. But over this last year and a half, we’ve probably had several. We’ve connected with people who live across the country virtually at the same time. Those are things to consider, right? A virtual Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner, however you want to do it. Another thing is sometimes when that’s not even an option, I like to call them framily events. So those friends who become family, right? We all probably know people who are in the same boat as us, they’d like to go home, but they can’t. Getting with those people during the holidays can be extremely helpful and extremely valuable. People are able to come in with their own family traditions and talk about, you know, Oh, this is what we normally do at my house, and you may grab a tradition from each person who’s attending. They may bring a special dish that their family normally cooked for the holidays. And so it’s a really fun time to have community, to join in, to not feel alone and not be alone during that time with other people who are in the same boat.

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Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing how to survive the holiday season with Dr. Nicole Washington. Staying on the theme of our family is great for our mental health, and we love to spend time with them. We don’t have any problem with them as individuals, but what advice do you have for folks who don’t have the resources to buy gifts and specifically not having the resources to buy gifts for children? Because children don’t understand why Uncle Gabe or Aunt Lisa is not buying them a gift. The adults in your life will understand, but children are sort of a sticky wicket when it comes to gift giving.

Dr. Nicole Washington: Yeah, it is, it’s tough, and we want to give to the kids, right? Because Christmas is about the kids. A couple of things that I think are really helpful. One is having a conversation with the family, like the family sitting down because I can guarantee you if you have a lot of kids in your family, it can get out of hand really quickly. If you have a lot of children, nieces, nephews, cousins who come, it can get out of hand really fast. So having a conversation? I’ve seen families join in teams, a team of people will give a gift to a particular child so that they can pool money together and be able to be a team giving gifts to the children. So it takes a little bit of the burden off. I have seen families have the children pull names so that the children each get a gift from another child, but that no one particular child is getting tons of gifts because a lot of times parents are thinking, Gosh, what are we going to do with all this stuff like, we don’t need all this stuff. So to get away from that, they’ll have the kiddos pull names and do one gift with the kids. I’ve seen adults pull names to cut that cost as well. Adults will go who all is gonna be there? We’re going to pull names and it’s fun because you can get, you know, that person something and you can be very intentional about that gift. And that can be a really fun, meaningful time. When you’re just getting one gift for somebody, you’re able to be a lot more intentional. So I think that’s a good idea. If you’re somebody though, who’s like, No, I want to get these kids gifts, then I recommend starting in January, when Christmas is over, you start putting away that 20 bucks a month or 30 dollars a month for that child.

Dr. Nicole Washington: And then by the end of the year, I mean, if you put away $30 a month or $25 a month or 20 bucks a month, you’d have anywhere from 240 to 360 dollars to go Christmas shopping at the end of the year. I’m a big fan of off season shopping for the children and adults even that I shop for, so I will start earlier in the year. I mean, if I just happened to be out and I see something that is on clearance and I’m like, Oh, so and so would really like that. I will get it and put it in my Christmas box and so those gifts are kinda already there. And then the world of crafting and making things is huge right now. I’ve never seen people be so creative. I’m always amazed at all of the things that people can create. If you’re a crafty kind of person and that’s something that you feel comfortable doing, there are all kinds of crafts things that you can do for the kids, with the kids on Christmas to give them a gift, but without spending a lot of money. So we’re going to make cocoa mix and you have the ingredients in jars and the kids are making their own cocoa mix or giving them cookie dough fixings in a jar. Or you’re, you know, it’s very kid friendly, but things that they will love that won’t break the bank. And I think everybody walks away feeling good about what they did.

Gabe Howard: I think as we watch all the commercialization of the holidays, the gift giving, the commercials and everything we think that presents are about tangible things. But I think you’re right. I think we lose sight of the fact that children, especially younger children, what they value the most is spending time with their family members. So we need to remember that taking them to a movie, taking them to a park, let them pick the movie. I think about the little people in my life and they’re like, Gabe watched YouTube videos with me for an hour. Look, it was a brutal hour. I’ve never watched somebody play a video game and talk about it for so long in my entire life. But my niece loved it.

Dr. Nicole Washington: I love that. I would even think of putting like a little coupon book together and giving it to them for Christmas, like a redeem for one free movie night with Uncle Gabe, redeem for one trip to ice cream. They would be more excited about that than if you spent 50 bucks on a gift for them. I also think that just leaning in again, you know, going away from the commercialization of the holidays and leaning in on what the holidays are all about in another way. To have your children plan a service activity for that holiday, like what does that look like? I’ve seen families come together and for the beginning of their day, they are putting together packages to drop off at the local shelter, so they’re putting blankets and Band-Aids and lotion and gloves and things in bags, little packages to drop off at the shelter. That’s a great activity for children to be a part of on the holiday. So just remind them that one, it’s not all about the gifts and all that stuff. It can also be about giving to other people and helping the community and that everyone isn’t as fortunate as they are to have that family who’s there and giving them gifts and nice things like that.

Gabe Howard: Dr. Washington, let’s transition into some practical advice. The first question that I see all the time, all over the forums and social media are recommendations for somebody who is in recovery. You know, somebody who is in recovery from alcoholism, who is going to a work function or a family function where they know that alcohol will be served. What advice or tips or coping skills do you have for them? Because they don’t want to miss out on the festivities, but obviously their sobriety is of paramount concern.

Dr. Nicole Washington: The first thing I would say is for anybody listening who is in leadership in your organization, you’re in HR or you’re in the planning committee for these functions for your job and you are not personally in recovery. I would encourage you in the planning phase to be the voice. Heck, you don’t even have to be on the planning committee. If your job has an annual function, and there’s alcohol that is typically served, I’d encourage you to just drop a note to your HR or whoever plans it and encourage them to consider those employees who may be in recovery. We don’t know who they are, right? Like we think we know and some of them we do know, but we don’t know who those folks are. So I would say, charge your leadership, encourage them, push on them to have an event that is going to not be stressful for somebody who’s in recovery. You know, take that, run with it. Do something, make it a better place for the person in recovery. Now, for my folks who are in recovery, this can be a really damaging time of year if we’re not careful. And my mantra is typically stay ready so we don’t have to get ready. If we know that there’s going to be alcohol at those events? And we know that for our position where we are, we’re trying to show that we’re a team player, that we’re part of the organization and we want to go. We like these people. We work with them every day. If we know that alcohol is going to be there, then I recommend you lean on your support heavy, heavy, heavy during that time. If you have a sponsor, talk to that person.

Dr. Nicole Washington: If you need to increase your meeting attendance during that time because you know what’s coming around the pike, go for it. Do it, whatever that takes. Practically, when you get to that event, people are always going to try to put a drink in your hand. It just never fails. If I’m in an event and I’m not holding something, you know, three different people are going, Oh, you need a drink? Oh my god. Oh, you don’t have it. Let’s get you a drink. So I have employed the I call it the decoy, the decoy drink, right? So go to the bartender and you ask him to give you a, him or her, to give you a ginger ale or a sprite. Then you ask him to put like a little splash of grenadine in it to make it a little red. And people will leave you alone because they will assume that you’re drinking something, something fancy. They’ll assume and they just won’t bug you as much. I have had people talk to the bartenders ahead of time and say, Hey, listen, if I come to you with someone and they try to order me a drink, I might just say to you, Hey, give me another what I had and just discreetly do me another sprite and cranberry. I don’t want to drink, but I don’t want to have to explain to everyone why. Bartenders have been great allies for a lot of my folks over the years in helping them to continue these decoy drinks to get people off their backs. So having that just in your hand, you’d be surprised at how people just leave you alone because they’re well-meaning and they don’t know your background, but it just can protect you from making a quick judgment to do something that you really will regret later.

Gabe Howard: I think that is wonderful advice and also very, very practical. I love suggestions that are easy to incorporate. Along that easy to incorporate theme, can you recommend any coping skills to manage stress that are generally quick in nature and ideally can be done while in a room full of people?

Dr. Nicole Washington: Yeah, it’s so tough, the holidays. They are a fantastic time; I think we all want to enjoy them. We all want to have a great time and walk away and think, Oh, that was magical and fantastic. But the reality is our lives are stressful. The world is so doggone stressful right now. It’s just tough. It’s tough to make it all happen the way we like it to. So if I’m in a room full of people and I’m feeling extremely stressed, I will go into a corner. I will share with the world. I am an extreme introvert and social settings for me are not always fantastic. Like, I’m drained at the end of them. Even if I enjoy them, I’m drained and sometimes in the middle of an event when there’s just a lot going on, I will pretend to take a phone call in a heartbeat, so I will go, Oh, wait a minute and I will go off in a corner. I will step outside and pretend to be on a phone call, and I will actually be listening to like a three minute or five minute meditation, and nobody knows it.

Dr. Nicole Washington: And it has been the best thing in the world to kind of help me de-stress in the middle of an event. Sometimes I won’t even listen to a formal meditation. I will literally just be holding the phone. It has to be on silent, right? You don’t want it ringing while you’re holding it to your ear and pretending to talk. But I will just hold it to my ear and just do some deep breathing. I really will just close my eyes sometimes. If I can get really in a corner where no one can see my face, I will close my eyes and I will spend like three minutes just listening to the environment and breathing, like just listening. And I’ll try to pull out different sounds I’m hearing in the room and try to figure out what I think they are. But it just kind of takes me out of my head a little bit, and it gives me a chance to kind of regroup and recenter, and then I can get back out there and do what I need to do.

Gabe Howard: I love that. I never thought of using the phone as a prop, because when you pick up that phone, people just leave you alone and it’s become socially acceptable,

Dr. Nicole Washington: Yes.

Gabe Howard: Right? The minute you say, Oh, I’ve got to grab this and you pick up, everybody’s like, cool. Like, nobody like this

Dr. Nicole Washington: Nobody questions.

Gabe Howard: Wouldn’t have worked 20 years ago.

Dr. Nicole Washington: No, no, but no, but we might as well use it to our advantage, right? I mean, the phone call will save you.

Gabe Howard: The phone call will absolutely save you, and I’m, I love my phone and I’m surprised I didn’t think about it, but it’s just yet another use of the smartphone. I think that that is an incredible idea. And you said listen to a meditation or just use it as a prop to do the breathing and make sure you turn it on silent so it doesn’t ring. But also, we can utilize that phone to call up that support system. We can call up our friend who’s not with us to say, Hey, hey, I needed a break. You’re doing great. How much more time do you have left? Or, you know, just give us that little, that little oomph. I’d also imagine that you could shoot a quick text to your friend, your buddy, your spouse, your whomever and say, Hey, man, I’m hanging in and they can send you a funny meme. My sister and I do this all the time. I’m like, Hey, I’m trapped in hell. And she sends me over like kittens doing funny stuff, and it just kind of makes me giggle. But it also lets me be connected to my sister, which gives me a boost to make it through the next half of the event or make it through the anxiety.

Dr. Nicole Washington: Absolutely.

Gabe Howard: Dr. Washington, the phone idea, that’s a million dollar idea, you should patent that.

Dr. Nicole Washington: Oh, gosh.

Gabe Howard: I am so glad that you could be here with us today. Dr. Washington, where can people find you online so that they can hear more of your wonderful wisdom and advice?

Dr. Nicole Washington: I am @DrNicolePsych. D R N I C O L E P S Y C H on all the social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. You can find me there. And the website is also DrNicolePsych.com and you can go there and look. I have a podcast tab where you can listen to previous episodes of my podcast. If you’re interested in clinical services, there’s a Clinical Services tab, so anything you need will be right there on the website.

Gabe Howard: And the name of your podcast, Dr. Washington, is?

Dr. Nicole Washington: The C-Suite Confidant, it’s all about professionals and mental health, business professionals and mental health.

Gabe Howard: I love it, thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Nicole Washington: Thank you. This was so fantastic.

Gabe Howard: Oh, you are very welcome, and to all of our listeners, thank you. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who is available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, of course, what isn’t? Or you can grab a signed copy with free podcast swag or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded the show, follow or subscribe to the show. It’s absolutely free. And hey, recommend this show to people. Send them an email, send them a text message, post it on social media and, you know, talking to people, word of mouth, that is absolutely still a thing. I will see everybody next Thursday here on Inside Mental Health.
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