It’s time to pull those decorations out of the attic, trim the Christmas tree or set up the menorah. There are dozens of gifts to buy, parties to attend, and relatives to juggle. Then there’s the cleaning, baking and cooking.
Welcome to the holiday season – which, while certainly a time of joy and celebration, can also be a time of very real stress. We are constantly reminded of something else we need to add to our to-do list, and unrealistic expectations often leave us feeling inadequate or disappointed.
The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) found that 64% of people are affected by the “holiday blues.” In addition to stress, fatigue, anxiety and a feeling of loneliness or isolation may appear.
“For many people the holiday season is not always the most wonderful time of the year,” said NAMI medical director Ken Duckworth. “What the survey shows is a tremendous need for people to reach out and watch out for each other in keeping with the spirit of the season.”
But Geeta Cowlagi, who teaches mindfulness, stress resilience and compassion to individuals and groups, says that the same biology that triggers this stress cycle can also calm, connect and heal us.
“The ability to awaken this healing and joy starts with the smallest of shifts through the practice of mindfulness.”
She explains mindfulness as simply the ability to pause for a moment and reconnect to the present with an open heart – with curiosity, care and without judgment.
With that in mind, we share five ways to practice mindfulness for stress resilience during the holiday season.
It sounds simple, but can have powerful effects. Inhale deeply, noticing the expansion in your body; smile as you exhale and invite deep relaxation and release. Take 3-5 breaths to reset, and notice how you feel afterwards.
“This is a powerful exercise because you are telling your mind and body that if you can breathe deeply and smile, there is no real threat in this moment,” says Cowlagi. “It also allows you to restore yourself for the next challenge, where you may need the energy to act with wisdom and skill.”
Set aside time each day, even if it’s just ten minutes, to walk or exercise. Physical activity has a huge positive benefit on our state of mind. To put mindfulness into your movement, Cowlagi suggests making an effort to be rooted in the present moment, and notice what is around you as you walk.
“A walk to or from your car as you notice the color of the sky or feel the breeze on your face may be a good start. Connecting to nature can heal us in even a few moments.”
Though the season is a time for connection with friends and family, often relatives can be a source of anxiety, especially in an election year or where there might be heated conflict. There are also decades of patterns and sometimes real trauma buried within familial relationships. While we can’t always avoid spending time with toxic people, we can set aside grievances and focus instead on ourselves.
Cowlagi says that focusing on the positive, and being open to seeing with new eyes, can be key. “Take a moment to notice the color of the eyes of the person you are around – they could be the store checkout person or a family member you have known your whole life. See them as a human being with similar joys and fears as you. Smile if you can. Wish them well in your heart – it really only takes a moment.”
Set a budget – both on your expenses and time. Set reasonable goals for holiday activities and make sure you include time for yourself. Resist the urge to overextend financially or with commitments. Instead, focus on what brings you joy; this can often be the simplest things. Concentrate on pacing yourself, and resist the urge to compare your experience to others, or an idealized notion of how things “ought to be.”
Practice compassion, starting with yourself. Acknowledge negative feelings that come up – and then intentionally let them go. Put your hand on your heart or belly, breathe, and soften the tone of the internal voice inside your head.
“We can’t offer care to others from a depleted heart and body,” says Cowlagi. “It may help to recognize that this is a challenging time of year and offer a moment of kindness to yourself, the way you might hold a child who may be hurt.”
Perhaps this season you can give the gift of mindfulness to yourself and those around you – a gift of love in the middle of it all.