Standing the Heat, by Penny Field

By Penny Field

Penny Field is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in East Hartford CT. You can learn more about her work at or read her blog Progress not Perfection at

Illustrator: Sharon Eckstein

Illustrator: Sharon Eckstein

It’s holiday time. The message everywhere is: Be happy! It’s time for holiday shopping, gifts, family gatherings, special food, high spirits and “Happy New Year!” Unfortunately, for many people, it’s also a time for high stress, big disappointment, and feelings of loneliness. And it’s especially hard to be feeling down when everyone else seems so up. It’s easy to believe that no one wants to know about your pain. Why be a buzz-kill?

We humans have a pretty low tolerance for pain. Our brains register any kind of pain, be it physical, mental, or emotional, as a serious problem. Any emotional or psychological upset translates in our bodies as a clear and present danger to our survival. Even if you rationally know that you won’t die from, let’s say, disappointment, if some part of you believes that you cannot survive the pain, it makes sense that the part of you that thinks you cannot handle that pain will be super motivated to get it to go away. Disappointment, stress, sadness, anger, anxiety, or loneliness can all feel like there’s a fire raging inside that needs to be put out immediately. Quick! Call the firefighters! What can help put out these feelings as quickly as possible?

Sometimes our inner firefighters reach for the big guns; substances like alcohol and drugs, gambling, or self-injurious behaviors can quell painful emotions fairly effectively for a short time. And sometimes, suicide can appear to be the only option. Over-eating, compulsive shopping, pornography, and video games can all appear to help, but generally it turns out that this stuff is like spraying gasoline on the fire. What seems like a quick fix actually creates a bigger blaze. So, what do we do about the pain?

We need to understand that the goal isn’t to completely eliminate pain; life can be hard, and sometimes it hurts. It has to be more about upping our tolerance for the discomfort so we don’t have to engage in dangerous firefighting. Learning to stand the heat. How do we do that? Here are a few simple, but not always easy, ways to get through the hard times:

1. Breathe.
When our brains get the message that we are in danger (even if that danger is only imagined) our bodies respond by activating our autonomic nervous system. Heart rate speeds up, pupils dilate, digestion slows down and it doesn’t feel good. Taking deep, slow breaths will reverse this fight or flight response and help the body and mind to settle down.

2. Focus on the present.
So often, emotional/psychological pain is rooted in distressful memories of the past or fear of anticipated future difficulties. Most of the time, right in this moment things are generally OK. Conscious breathing helps to get you here now, as does tuning into present time sights or sounds. Play some music that you like and really listen. Watch the birds. When your mind wanders into the past or future, ask yourself, “Where are my feet?”

3. Share your feelings.
This is the most important one of all and can feel like the most difficult, but going through hard times alone seriously heightens the risk of perilous firefighting behavior. Sometimes it can feel as if no one wants to hear about your problems, but a burden shared is a burden halved. Telling even one person can be the relief valve you need to ride out the discomfort of whatever it is that hurts right now. Let your friends and family know about your struggles and if that feels impossible, call a professional. There are many suicide and mental health support hotlines that are a just a call or a text away.

At all times of the year, but especially over the holidays, it’s important to be learning more and better ways to handle the challenges that full-on living brings. What tips do you have for taking care of yourself, managing your discomfort, and keeping those dangerous firefighters contained?

If you need support now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or, text “START” to 741-741 to get help 24/7 from the Crisis Text Line.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit the Jordan Porco Foundation’s resources page.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal, and not those of the Jordan Porco Foundation. The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as mental health advice from the individual author or the Jordan Porco Foundation. You should consult a mental health professional for advice regarding your individual situation.