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“This isn’t what I asked for!” “Why do you have to act like this on such a special day?!” “Can’t you stop being like this just for one day?” “For some reason this day always makes me sad.” “How long do we have to be at your parent’s house, . . . we’re always there too long?”

Christmas Triggers: The Christmas season is so full of triggers. What’s a trigger? It’s an event, a situation, a feeling, a series of thoughts that “trigger” emotional pain, conflicted relationships, or difficult behaviors.

As much as we may love the Christmas season and Christmas day, both can trigger pain, loneliness, sadness, conflict, and so much more. So here are some ideas that may help.

Slow Down and Be Intentional: As joyful as the holidays can be, they’re stressful simply because they add so much to our already full plates. We go to more events and parties. We consume more unhealthy food and drink. We feel pressure to find and give “perfect” presents. We rub against each in ways that cause friction.

Slowing down and becoming more intentional helps. This means distinguishing between I want to do, what I need to do, and what I should let go of. Be intentional about what you say yes or not to. Be intentional about what you’ll eat and drink. Slow down so you can make good choices.

Focus on the Positive: This is incredibly hard to do when things become negative, but we can choose how to respond to triggers. We can react in typical negative ways, or we can choose other ways of thinking. Focusing on the positive means appreciating what’s good rather than lingering on what’s not. Appreciate the lights, friends, what’s good. Don’t deny what’s not good but pay more attention to what is good and be grateful for it. Gratitude is part of my spiritual life. I’m intentional about thanking God for all that is good.

Mature Understanding: Can you be more understanding simply of how people are? I’ve found this to be a powerful tool for getting through the stress of anything. The more I recognize that others are responding to triggers, causing them to be sad, create conflict, and feel stressed, the more I can become patient, compassionate, understanding, and respond in more helpful ways.

Be Responsible for Yourself: There was a phrase that really influenced my life when I was being trained as a drug and alcohol counselor. It has to do with two Alcoholics Anonymous steps 8 and 9, which have to do with making amends to those we’ve harmed. A recovering alcoholic said to me, I’ve learned that it’s my responsibility to make amend and ask for forgiveness. But I’m not responsible for getting them to forgive me.

The same is true for Christmas triggers. We can only be responsible for how we react and respond to them, not for how others do. So be responsible for your own responses and forgiving for others.

We hope you have a great Christmas!


The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

Executive Director

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The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

They’re falling all around us. It started slowly, as the cherry trees silently let go of their small, yellow leaves. Then came the sassafras, shyly releasing their leaves to add a light orange tint to the ground. Maples are never shy. They announce their presence with a blaze of bright orange, red, and yellow leaves, and then slowly relinquishing them. It’s as if they are shouting to the world, “Look at me, I’m letting go!”

The oaks? Don’t get me started on oaks. When they let go of their leaves they wait until it’s freezing outside, after turning an ugly brown. And once down, their leaves refuse to decompose. They need the help of rakes and leaf blowers. Still, they let go. They don’t hold onto leaves from the past. They let go so that once winter passes they can start anew.

I’ve often thought that those who are wisest often study nature. Jesus certainly tapped into nature wisdom with his parables, comparing the healthy life with scattered seed, the growth and harvesting of grapes, the growth of a fig tree, the harvesting of wheat, and more. You find similar wisdom in Native American spirituality, Daoism, and Buddhism.

So what can falling leaves teach us? They teach us the importance of letting go. I’ve mentioned this before in previous messages—that a significant barrier to mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health is holding on to what we need to let go of. We all do it. We have experiences, sometimes horrific, from our past that we ruminate over continually. It can be as terrible as abuse, or as mundane as a demeaning and deflating comment we made to a co-worker years before.

Unfortunately, the longer we cling to detrimental experiences from the past, the more it keeps us from living in the present and growing in the future.

The healthiest people I know are the ones who are more like the cherries and sassafras. They let go of the past quietly and gently. They understand the need to silently forgive others and ourselves on an ongoing basis. They’re the ones who always move forward, even if they’ve been hurt terribly.

Others are more like maples. They know they need to let go, and so they bring others into the process. They find people to talk about it so they can release it. They engage friends, acquaintances, and sometimes enemies, in conversations and even rituals that allow them to let go. They make more of a show of it, but their ability to talk it out and let it go can be quite beautiful and healing.

Some are like oaks. They’ve clung to their pain much longer, and sometimes when they finally do let it go, it’s not always healthy to others. They are like those who seek out therapy. They need help in not only letting go but of making sure that when they do it doesn’t kill all that’s around them. Still, they let go and once they do are prepared to grow even stronger.

Letting go isn’t the same as repressing or denying. Those are unhealthy responses. When we do either we still cling to pain and the struggle. When we repress, we pretend we’re letting go, but really we push the pain down, allowing it to become a sepsis that infects our psyches. When we deny we pretend the pain isn’t there, which spreads rot by doing nothing to heal it. Letting go literally means letting go of what was so that we can be prepared to live for what can be.

At Samaritan we help people let go—let go of pain, trauma, what others have done to us, what we have done to others, events we had no control over, those that we shouldn’t have had control over, and so much more.

Are there simple ways to let go? It’s never simple nor easy, but there are ways, which include self-work, therapy, spiritual direction, and/or coaching.

The first thing to remember is that venting isn’t really letting go. A generation ago therapists thought that venting and letting things out cathartically were keys to relinquishing pain and trauma. Then researchers explored the effectiveness of cathartic therapies and found that those who vent regularly actually imprint the pain deeper into themselves. They might feel temporary relief, but the problems linger longer because the emotional venting makes the pain more visceral. The venter hasn’t actually let the pain go. Instead, the vent becomes like an addiction, causing the person to find more people to vent to. And when they do, they often suck the life out of the other who is stuck listening to an emotional rant. There’s a difference between venting and talking about the pain with a therapist committed to healing. The therapist, by allowing me to talk about my pain in a focused and reflective way, helps me explore alternative ways of recounting and remembering the pain, while helping me adopt new ways of thinking about it so I can move forward.

A second way of letting go is actively looking for ways to understand, and maybe even forgive, the purveyors of our pain. For example, there are things in my life that I still cringe over because I caused pain in another. I can try to repress or deny what I’ve done, but it’s all still there and I still cringe—sometimes obsessively. I’ve found that understanding myself at that age, what my thinking was, how immature and selfish I was, helps me to let go. And what really helps has been times when I’ve gotten in touch with someone from my past and asked for forgiveness. Most of the time, if I’m able to share how immature and self-focused I was, and how sorry I am now, the person does forgive me.

Finally, letting go can simply be a matter of being aware that this pain, experience, memory, or struggle is in the past, and that I need to move toward the future. In these cases, prayer can help. I can’t change what happened, but I can take it to God in prayer and ask God to help me release it so that I can keep it from making my present and future life toxic.

The key is that just as trees are now letting go of what’s dying on their branches, we need to think about how to let go of experiences that are dead and in the past. This creates the soil that eventually can lead to new life for us.

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By The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA, Executive Director

Have you ever wondered why we’re so enamored with the Olympics? Every four years we’ll intensely watch sporting events that we’d completely ignore in the intervening years. Why? Personally, I think it’s because they inspire us with stories of tragedy turned to triumph, while periodically showing hubris turned to humility.

In my life I’ve witnessed many truly great, inspiring Olympic moments. I remember the unknown Bruce Jenner’s great decathlon gold medal in 1976. I remember young, graceful teen Nadia Comăneci’s surprising gold medals for gymnastics in 1976, as well as tiny teen Olga Korbut’s in 1972 and 1976. I remember baseball cap-clad David Wottle’s amazing gold medal win in the 1972 800-meter race, coming from a far distant last place to win by a nose over the final 100 meters. I remember Rulon Gardner’s cartwheels following his 2000 David-like Greco-Roman wrestling gold-medal win over the three-time Olympic champion Russian goliath. Still, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like the performances and stories of this year’s Olympics in Japan.

It’s not the races, performances, feats, or wins that have amazed me. What’s inspired me is how so many athletes’ have displayed champion mental wellness. Having spent my life helping people become healthier in spirit, mind, and body, I’m grateful for the mental health being displayed in the Olympics. At the same time, I’ve also been disturbed by the backlash against those displaying it, with some calling them weak while crabbing that back in their day athletes would push through their problems.

I began paying attention closer attention to these Olympics when Simone Biles, considered the greatest gymnast in the world, and perhaps the greatest American gymnast ever, pulled out of the team competition ostensibly because of mental health concerns. She didn’t feel mentally fit to compete, emphasizing that to do so in her present mindset could lead to serious injury or even death. Still, people have their opinions. Many have criticized her for being selfish, for letting the team down, for not being stronger mentally, and for putting her mental health needs above winning a gold medal. Those comments all grate on my nerves because, as a person committed to mental and life wellness, criticizing someone for prioritizing mental health,… well,… it just grates on my nerves.

In following the Simone Biles story I’ve been noticing some other great feats of mental wellness that should inspire us to prioritize our own and others’ mental health even more. For example, I read about how high jumpers Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar tied after failing three times each to clear the height of 7’10”. Rather than competing in a jump-off, which is typical, they decided to share the gold medal. Having forged a friendship forged through years of international competition, they cherished the idea of sharing their accomplishment with each other.

Later, during an 800-meter race, runners Isaiah Jewett of the U.S. and Nijel Amos of Botswana became entangled with each other, falling to the ground in a tangle of legs and arms. Instead of angrily accusing the other of interference, they helped each other up and finished the race with arms around each other.

At the end of the women’s triathlon, Belgium’s Claire Michel fell to the ground sobbing because she finished dead last. Norwegian Lotte Miller, who placed 24th, walked over and consoled her, reminding Michel that she was an Olympian, that she had still finished the race after 20 others dropped out, and that she needed to cherish where she was and what she had accomplished. She was an inspiration, not a failure.

These athletes remarkably demonstrated not only mental health, but spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational wellness as well. We’ve all come through the pandemic with different levels of personal health. Certainly, many have felt crushed by the past year, and at Samaritan we’ve been privileged to help some of them restore their lives. Others have emerged from the pandemic clearly embracing what deeply matters in life. They’ve learned that what matters isn’t necessarily winning or accumulating or succeeding. It’s living lives that are spiritually, mentally, physically, and relationally fit and balanced.

I’m struck by several things Simone Biles said in receiving the bronze medal after returning to compete in the balance beam competition: “My mental and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win.” What a tremendous insight for one so young. She’s right! Too many athletes have been champions in sport only to later fail at life. A little later she offered a reminder of what matters as we cheer our athletes on: “We’re not just entertainment. We’re humans.” What a powerful statement about life. In other words, we can’t truly win if we’re not seeking to be mentally well?

At Samaritan, we’re not just here to help people overcome deep mental and spiritual wounds. We’re also here to help people grow in wellness. Be blessed!

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