Introducing Dr. Susannah Smith To The TIO Team

I grew up in and around New York, a place known for ethnic diversity, where a handle like "Smith" is as rare as a street with no traffic or trash. The name smacks of white bread and white linen.

OD 2 Susannah is anything but. She is a kaleidoscope of colors. However this true introvert does not announce her many gifts. She unwraps them slowly or obliquely in conversations over time, casually tossing over her shoulder (like discarded peanut shells) the fact she is a practicing clinical psychologist, executive coach, systems consultant, author, composer, soprano, and one-time pilot.

Susannah does not take herself too seriously: she is who she is.
We on the other hand are honored to call her friend and confidante.

Dr. Smith has agreed to join "Telluride Inside…and Out's" team of writers. She will be contributing a weekly advice column, beginning now with her first "Shrink Rap."

Shrink Rap- Survival tips for the holidays
By Dr. Susannah Smith

Streets downtown are dressed up to entice us to shop 'til we drop. We are all in the midst of the holiday season celebrated, promoted, anticipated – and dreaded by many. The message is family closeness, charity, happiness, and joy. For many, especially those who do not have family close by or who are estranged, the reality is otherwise.

These are emotional times that cause us to remember and contemplate. Looking at photographs, we think about where we once were, what we were doing in another time and place, eyes shaded by rose-tinted glasses. The memories that arise cause us to wonder what we shoulda, coulda, woulda been doing. Schedules are disrupted. We are forced to confront a blur of cards, gifts, food, flights, road trips, more cards, drink, songs, smiles, the Salvation Army, Angel Baskets, concerts, glad-handing, more smiles, more parties…

Even those who are normally quite happy, blessed with a wonderful family, plenty of money, and good health, get stressed just anticipating what they have to do to prepare. People tell me Halloween is the warm-up, and Thanksgiving is point of no return. Turkey and stuffing is meager compensation for the onslaught of work that lies ahead.

This year, when we toss "recession" into the equation, we have created the perfect storm, anxiety and depression in the wake. How can shopping be fun when we are worried about paying the mortgage or heating bill, or losing a job, or worse, a home?

So, how can we survive the season? Perhaps even enjoy it? Here are a few tips.

The economic recession actually gives us all an opportunity to reevaluate our priorities – and an excuse to follow them. Part of the stress we experience comes from a cognitive dissonance between our spiritual beliefs and the materialistic world in which we live. Take time out to meditate and reflect on the meaning of the season for you – not for anyone else, not the media message – and decide what activities would enhance and communicate those deeply held beliefs, then follow your heart and budget from gift giving to meal planning.

In the absence of family, create one. Wherever you live, there are people in need of caring, comfort, and help. One of the best ways to off-load a depression and/or anxiety is to get busy doing something constructive: giving to others is productive, social, and just plain feels good. Instead of seeing the glass as half empty, choose to view it as half full. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, we learn that our feelings are manifestations of the way we think about or view any given situation. If we think something is terrible, we can guarantee it will be. Likewise, if we convince ourselves a situation is the best it can be – it will also be.

Take care of yourself. Make a commitment to your health. Decide that no matter how much you think you have to do, you will still leave at least an hour a day just for you. Promise to continue your exercise and play. When we know we are about to confront a more intense and demanding stretch of life, we should also pamper ourselves a bit: get a massage, spend some time in the hot tub. Alone and quality time can be your salvation.

Guests coming? Be judicious about how many you allow to visit at a time and realistic about their personalities and whether they are high or low maintenance.
If you have family members coming, think about how they can take on some responsibilities that you normally assume. Consider doing less. Take more time off work to enjoy the pleasure of the company. Use the way you have come to define the meaning of the season as a litmus test for activities you have planned.

All alone? Everything in life is an opportunity. You might use the time to do something you have always wanted to do. In my stress management workshops, I challenge individuals to think of 20 ways to play that are free or cost less than $5.00. Do something that piques your interest: drive to Moab, walk on a trail you have been meaning to explore, sign up for a class in a subject that has always intrigued you, create a snow carving, foster a pet, invent new recipes, call someone you have been wanting to know better, or take an unplanned trip you have been dreaming about.

Too much of the wrong kind of family closeness? Many of us experience guilt and confusion over exactly how to handle family during the holidays. We feel an obligation to be a good parent or child, aunt or uncle, but we don't particularly get along with our family members. Just because we were born into a family does not mean we have a lot in common. So, how do we meet our family obligations without subjecting ourselves to an unpleasant, and in some cases, abusive or traumatic situation? Sometimes we have to buck family tradition altogether. Instead of planning the trip "home," we may determine that we are already home, and we want to experience our own idea of Christmas or Hanukkah. Instead of allowing relatives and/or friends to dictate what they would like to do, we need to take responsibility for creating a situation that is a reflection of our own values. I realize this is often easier said than done, but I know that it is possible. When we live our lives according to our own values, we feel GOOD, relieved, and empowered.

Even kids can get the blues. For children and young adults, the holidays can be stressful as well: Schools and colleges often concentrate on final exams and term papers before, during, or after the holidays, and family/social demands impact them as well. Be mindful of what your children are experiencing, and help them ease the pain. Have family meetings, draw names for a one-gift responsibility, conduct a brainstorming session for fun gifts under $5.00, provide ways to earn some of their own spending money, and in general, encourage the younger members of your family to follow your own successful stress-management remedies.

Think about it. We actually only have a limited number of holidays – maybe 70 to 85 – in an average lifespan.  Consider each year and each event as being comprised of life units: How are we going to spend those units? Sometimes I tell people: "Pretend you were a grown-up and could do anything you wanted – what would you do? If you could plan it any way you wanted, how would it be?" Most of you reading this are grown-ups: go for it, make it your own, and have fun. Even if you are a minor and feel helpless to change events, find your own private way to celebrate and honor the season that feels true to your own heart and spirit.

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