The holiday season can be a time of high stress. Fewer hours of daylight, unpredictable weather, travel, and social events filled with food and drink we wouldn’t otherwise dream of consuming, can leave our systems off balance.
Your body and mind are happiest when you are in a state of homeostasis, or equilibrium. When in balance, your nervous system maintains a relative state of calm. Drastic changes in eating, sleeping, digestion, and environment challenge this stability. Your system may even perceive these disruptions as threat, releasing stress hormones like cortisol into your bloodstream. Factor in long lines, traffic snarls, airports, and family dinners, and you have a prescription for intense emotion and unpleasant interactions.
This is an excellent time to slow down and care for yourself. Seem impossible? It doesn’t have to be. Here are seven tips for getting you through the holiday season and beyond.
1. Set an Intention to Care for Yourself
For many, this time of busyness can feel like a slippery slope. Not only do you have the regular demands of a typical busy life, but you are now expected to add to them. The first step in changing your behavior or your response to life circumstances is to set the intention to do so. An intention is a powerful commitment. In making the commitment to proceed differently, you begin the process of change.
Whatever you set as an intention, keep it simple and doable so that you can commit to it each day and stick to it.
At this time of year, it is particularly important to set an intention to care for yourself. The commitment may be as small as taking five minutes out of the day to stop and breathe deeply, or something longer like a daily yoga or meditation class. Whatever you set as an intention, keep it simple and doable so that you can commit to it each day and stick to it. Doable is the key. There is no reason to add something insurmountable to an already overwhelming to-do list.
2. Be Aware of Your Stress Level
It is essential to take responsibility for your stress. While it may be difficult to get in touch with your stress level when you can’t find five minutes to sit still, taking a few minutes to relax and listen to your body’s messages on a regular basis is crucial to your health. Stress often manifests in physical cues like muscle tension, elevated heart rate, feeling hot or flushed, or even some form of chronic pain. It can also show up in your mood—leaving you feeling anxious, irritable, angry, impatient, overwhelmed, frustrated, and depressed.
This is particularly true when faced with circumstances you can’t control. If you find yourself standing in a line, sitting in traffic, or in some other situation that leaves you feeling more frustrated or irritated than seems reasonable for you, it’s a clear sign to step back and offer yourself a break—even for just a few moments. In the absence of that, your negative mood is far more likely to escalate, and you may find yourself saying or doing something you may regret later.
3. Accept Your Emotions
As a culture, we are encouraged to suppress emotions like anger, grief, fear, and aggression. Instead of accepting these feelings as a natural part of the human condition, we are taught that they are wrong, unacceptable, or even shameful. Consequently, we often suppress such emotions, or become intolerant of ourselves (or others) when we feel them. This only feeds into our stress.
Emotions like these are a natural part of being human. It is perfectly okay to feel them, and it's also important to act on them if we do so skillfully and with sensitivity to their impact on those around us.
For example, you may feel irritated if someone around you is moving slowly and putting you behind schedule. You have the option of either saying nothing and allowing your frustration to percolate until you blow your top, or explaining to the person that their actions are creating difficulty for you (and then brainstorming a solution). The former may lead to hurt feelings, while the latter is likely to resolve the issue and lead to greater understanding. This capacity is often referred to as emotional intelligence—the ability to recognize your emotions and those of others, and to use that information to guide your behavior.
4. Notice Your Stories and Perceptions
We all carry stories around in our heads about the way the world works or how we expect things should be. We also fill our minds with narratives about who we are, and we work hard to maintain those personas.
I am someone who appreciates order and punctuality. In my mind, I “should” be on time and the world “should” flow in an orderly fashion. Impediments like traffic jams or long lines drive me nuts. My expectation that things should flow smoothly can, and often does, get me into trouble.
It has taken me a lifetime to realize that things do not always go according to schedule. At any moment, weather, human behavior, or any number of other things can throw a monkey wrench into my plans, and despite my best efforts, I may sometimes show up to commitments later than I’d like. I need to continually challenge my assumption that things should flow smoothly and to accept what arises before me. If I am late, I need to accept that these things happen, and that being late doesn’t make me a horrible person—it makes me human.
Our personal narratives can also come into play when we evaluate the behavior of others. We may have family members who tell embarrassing anecdotes or express political viewpoints that make us cringe. They too are human. Our own "stories" may demand that we feel or think in a particular way, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else will feel or think that way too. Instead of allowing the opinions of others to ruffle our feathers, this is an excellent time to practice the precepts of acceptance and loving kindness. While we may not agree with or endorse someone else's behavior, we can choose to accept them as they are, rather than getting stressed out about aspects of their behavior or personality we cannot change.
5. Take a Purposeful Pause
Regardless of the intentions we set and how much we practice patience, acceptance, and loving kindness, there will be times when we feel overwhelmed or fed up. If you’ve become aware of your stress level, it will be pretty easy to identify those moments when stress arises.
Create small spaces of time in your day to stop the cycle of stress and hit the reset button.
Part of setting an intention for self-care is to make a commitment to take a purposeful pause and make time for relaxation and reflection. Again, it is important to create situations that are doable so that a pause does not become just one more task to add to your list—it may be taking a few extra minutes in the shower or sitting in a parking lot and taking a few minutes to breathe deeply and intentionally before moving on to the next task or meeting. The important point is to create small spaces of time in your day to stop the cycle of stress and hit the reset button, rather than continuing to run endlessly on the hamster wheel of tasks and commitments.
When you feel threatened or overwhelmed, your nervous system dumps a cascade of stress hormones into your bloodstream. Substances like cortisol prepare your system for threat by increasing your heart rate and respiration and tensing your muscles. One of the most immediate ways to diffuse the physiological stress response is through intentional breathing—taking long, slow, deep inhalations and exhalations and focusing on extending the exhalation as long as possible.
While this may not seem easy at first, as you begin to slow down your respiration rate you begin to elicit the relaxation response. As you relax, you regain a sense of mastery over the long to-do lists and inventory of commitments, and you permit your body and brain the time to recalibrate and regain homeostatic balance. The simple act of long, deep, slow breathing is, as a participant in a recent workshop of mine said, a “mental reward.” I suggest that it is a physical treat as well.
7. Practice Gratitude
If there is one thing I have learned so far, it is the importance of gratitude. We live in a culture that emphasizes deprivation, acquisition, and extinction. As we become more fearful of not having enough, not being able to acquire enough, or being under threat from predators and terrorists, we become more chronically stressed and less connected with the goodness in this world. This leads to hopelessness, despair, and a persistent and excessive drive to act—believing that the more we do to attack or defend against threat, the less vulnerable we are to it.
That isn’t necessarily the case, of course. We also become more fearful, hostile, or withdrawn, and less able to appreciate the blessings, beauty, and wonder around us. This contributes to our experience of chronic stress.
Numerous studies suggest that an attitude of gratitude is associated with greater life satisfaction, feelings of well-being, social functioning, and relationship satisfaction. While it may seem difficult to feel grateful in the midst of stress, it is possible.
A number of months ago I began a gratitude journal. This isn’t a new concept, but one that can often seem silly or meaningless if our mindset is oriented around fear, deprivation, or overwhelm. At least it did for me. Now each morning I take a few moments while drinking my tea to look out the window and appreciate the world around me.
Sometimes I notice the clouds in the sky or the birds in the trees. Other days I observe that, for a fleeting moment, I’m not obsessing about the myriad chores on my list or the dirt on my floors that the dog dragged in.
What seemed like a silly exercise at first has been a remarkable journey. There are days when the beauty around me is readily apparent, and I can appreciate it fully. And there are others when I am tired or feeling down, when I need to look a bit harder to find a reason to be grateful. Inevitably, I always do.
When I focus on gratitude, my heart no longer feels enveloped in fear. For that instant, the essence of this life comes into focus. In that space, nothing matters as much as the bird sitting on the ledge and her remarkable array of miraculously assembled feathers. It may be fleeting, but I have observed that those moments of grace add up, and I become more focused on what is there than what is not. I no longer feel stressed—just grateful.
Make a commitment to care for yourself in some way.
As you navigate the holiday season, as well as each and every other season in your life, try to do so intentionally and with great care for your physical and emotional life. Make a commitment to care for yourself in some way. Honor your experience and emotions, and use them as guideposts for insight. Learn to pause, breathe, and drink in your surroundings, no matter where you are. Chances are that you will find at least one thing to be grateful for.
Lastly, take these gifts out into the world. Let your behavior reflect the goodness in your heart, and share that goodness with everyone you meet. Peace on earth begins within.