Just thinking about the holidays may be stressing you out. While it’s a beautiful time of year, the holiday season is filled with extra activities that people need to fit into their already demanding schedules, said Dr. Jeffrey Brantley, M.D., director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke Integrative Medicine and author of True Belonging: Mindful Practices to Help You Overcome Loneliness, Connect with Others, and Cultivate Happiness with Wendy Millstine. And all that doing can diminish downtime, leaving us with little time to relax and regroup.
High expectations are another source of stress, Dr. Brantley said. We yearn to be happy during the holidays and tend to create idealistic expectations. We think that the typical dynamics, disputes and clashes with our families will just disappear.
We also might underestimate the time needed for tasks like shopping, cleaning and cooking. Other stressors include money problems and the usual holiday hoopla like traffic, long lines and lack of parking, he said.
So how can you cope with stress amid the holiday hustle? Mindfulness can help.
Dr. Brantley described mindfulness as paying attention purposely and without judgment to the present. It’s a practice that everyone can cultivate every day with everything they do. And it has a significant, soothing impact on stress. Below, Dr. Brantley offers several ideas for minimizing stress mindfully.
1. Accept that your body will experience stress.
For some of us stress may be inevitable, and that’s OK, Dr. Brantley said. He encouraged readers to realize that experiencing stress isn’t a failure on your part, and “you haven’t done anything wrong.”
2. Cultivate awareness and self-care.
Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, and use that information to help you make wiser decisions, especially when it comes to self-care, Dr. Brantley said. For instance, say you’re at a holiday party and feel tired or jittery or you’re worrying about 10 different things. Your automatic response may be to become even more upset and stressed out.
Instead, use this knowledge to be compassionate and give yourself what you need in the moment. You might decide to go outside and take a few long breaths, sit down and drink a cup of tea, or, if possible, leave the get-together early, and get some rest.
In other words, “as we grow in awareness, we can make different choices for ourselves,” Dr. Brantley said. We can choose to take a walk, take a nap or shop online to avoid the crowds.
It’s also important to become aware of the maladaptive coping methods you’re regularly using, such as overexercising or overworking, he said. These only stimulate your stress.
3. Cultivate gratitude.
Finding things you’re grateful for in the present moment can really shift your perspective in a positive way. No matter how big or small, we can usually find something we’re thankful for.
For instance, if you’re at your work holiday party, and it’s not particularly interesting, entertaining or even friendly, consider being thankful that you have a job in this tough economy, Dr. Brantley said. Or be thankful for the co-workers you do get along with.
If there’s friction at a family function, be thankful that you’re all alive and able to get together, he said. Or be thankful for the delicious food your aunt made or that the kids are having fun playing with each other.
4. Remember that anxiety isn’t who you are.
How many times have you said, “I’m an anxious person” or identified yourself as a worrywart? People can start to label themselves solely as a stress sufferer, letting this become part of their identity. But “We’re a lot more than that,” Dr. Brantley said.
While stress and negative thoughts can seem all-consuming, these unpleasant experiences are temporary, he said. We are not defined by our anxiety or stress reactions, and we can do many things to minimize our stress.
5. Become other-focused.
Often we think that we’re the only ones struggling with family or financial problems, that we’re the only ones who feel alone or unhappy. But remember that many people struggle with the same stressors during the holidays.
Dr. Brantley underscored the importance of having compassion for the pain of others and yourself. (Here’s how to cultivate self-compassion.) Remembering that you’re not alone in your suffering, and cutting yourself (and others) some slack can make it “easier to be present and connect with the good that is there.” For Dr. Brantley, doing so feels as though “something inside loosens its grips.”
6. Be curious about everyday things.
Curiosity is looking at the world like you’re seeing it for the first time, which is part of practicing mindfulness, Dr. Brantley said. When we see something for the first time, we examine it with great interest and care.
Think about a child going to a park they’ve never been to before. They take in the sights, sounds, smells and textures. They want to look inside every rock, nook and cranny, and everything is amazing. “This is an energizing way of seeing things,” said Dr. Brantley, who suggested using your five senses to pay attention to the present.
Savor the scent, texture and taste of the delicious holiday feast you’re eating. Tune into the sounds of holiday music, birds chirping or kids laughing. Observe the colors of the sky, shapes of the clouds and the many hues of changing leaves. Breathe in the fragrances of the firewood, pine trees and holiday-themed candles.
While we can’t control our stress reactions, we can choose to cope healthfully. Instead of letting to-do lists, events and people overwhelm us, we can choose to engage in stress-minimizing practices and, ultimately, engage in the world. As Dr. Brantley said, we’re already mindful. We just need to practice being mindful on a regular basis.
Paying attention to the present, finding things we’re grateful for and being compassionate to yourself and others can go a long way in helping you enjoy the holiday season, and your life.