While the holidays can be a joyous time, they are also full of a lot of events and responsibilities.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! There’ll be much mistletoe-ing and shopping and wrapping and working and vacation-planning and family-coordinating and trying-to-fit-in-a-Star-Wars-viewing and now I’m near tears!
To top it all off, the wealth of emotions that surround this time can bring up negative memories maybe even more easily than positive ones. With all of this emotional activity, it’s hard for the decision-making and processing part of our brain to be at its best. We also do a lot of top-down processing (relying on old information, like “This time of year is really frustrating!” or “You have twelve million things to do!”) instead of bottom-up processing (taking in new information, like the smell of peppermint in the air, or the sweet smile a loved one just gave you).
Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to bring that stress level down and enjoy the season a bit more.
1. Practice mindfulness.
If you need a little space from the chaos, but can’t pull a Cameron Diaz/Kate Winslet in The Holiday and cross the pond for an accidentally romantic vacation, mindfulness is a great option! Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” (The man knows what he’s talking about: he founded Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction- MBSR). It slows us down from thinking about dozens of things at once, things that happened in the past or might happen in the future, and the huge realm of possibilities and timelines to what’s going on in a single moment in time. It’s basically a Mannequin Challenge for your mind.
This can seem like a pretty overwhelming idea, but you can start in pieces.
Sometimes I spend just thirty seconds absorbing my environment—I listen to my clocks tick, then notice the lights on my Christmas tree, and feel the weight of my body leaning against the couch. Kesha shared that she uses apps for self-care during the holidays, including the Calm app. This app and others have easy (and short!) guides for some beginner mindfulness activities like the “Body Scan,” which draws your attention to each part of your body one at a time. When I do a Body Scan at stressful times, I start to realize just how much tension I was carrying in my shoulders and how much I really should ask for a massage/spa day for Christmas!
2. If that seems still like a bit of a leap—breathe. Literally, just breathe.
The first thing the Calm app tells you to do is to take a deep breath (see #1). I have mine set to then play soothing rain sounds while I navigate to the “Breathe Bubble.” The bubble expands and constricts with different chimes to help you breathe in and out for long enough to slow your heart rate, and, as the app name suggests, to feel calmer!
Controlling your breathing gives you that first step to regaining control over your stress reactions.
3. Focusing on the important stuff.
Taking another cue from the “Praying” singer, spend time engaging with what’s important to you.
The religious holidays in December and January are sometimes overrun with the other demands, but for many, they form a core aspect of why we’re gathering in the first place. Don’t let the minutia of your to-do list take priority over something foundational, whether that’s faith, family, friends, or fun time. Hallmark movies love to dramatically hype this; their classic recipe always seems to involve dragging some overworked person back to their hometown where they remember who they are.
It’s okay if it’s not beautifully snowing, you don’t run into your high school sweetheart, and there are no commercial breaks. You do you.
My answer to everything at every time of year is to spend time being thankful.
The holidays are a perfect time for this. We’re nearing the end of the calendar year and you have nearly twelve full months to reflect on. What were the highlights? What were some things that changed for the better? How have you changed for the better? After my mindful moment, I’m even thankful for the little things like the way the tree lights are reflecting against the wall, and how that somehow makes me feel cozy. It’s okay if you need to cheat and pull some things that you shared at Thanksgiving.
If you’re still grateful for them and spending some time thinking about them is still making you feel good, go for it!
With all of this emotional activity, it’s hard for the decision-making and processing part of our brain to be at its best.
5. Enjoy the fruit of your labors!
Take a little time to treat yo self.
If you just baked three dozen cookies for a holiday party, it’s probably okay if you have one or two. Give yourself a pat on the back when you check another pre-vacation item off of your work to-do list. Tell yourself that you’re doing a great job, that the gift you got your brother is going to make him really happy, and that you handled driving in that bit of snow like a champ! It’s a lovely thing to have some positive self-talk in the midst of all of those other busy thoughts.
Happy holidays to all of you. I hope the remainder of your 2018 is restful and joyous!