December, and the holidays, can be a tough month for many people. There are so many expectations and ideals of what the holidays “should” look like. Striving to meet these ideals can be incredibly stressful though. Travel, over-scheduling, financial strains, family conflict and over-stimulation can create feelings of anxiety, stress and feeling overwhelmed. Now is probably the time when you need to manage the stress the most, but when your resources are limited. It is probably not the best time to start an intensive meditation practice or learn a new hobby. Here are a few simple ways to manage holiday stress (you can start meditating in January!).
- Create realistic expectations about what the holidays will be like. Having realistic expectations can protect us from feeling disappointed or frustrated by our situations. Base your expectations on previous years. If most years are chaotic and hurried, there is a good chance that this year will be like that again (unless we make conscious changes to alter the experience-more on that next!). Many people feel disappointed when their holiday celebrations don’t turn out to be the picture perfect Norman Rockwell experience, even when they have zero evidence to support that fantasy. Even if it’s uncomfortable, base your expectations on your previous experiences.
- Make changes if previous experiences have been stressful, even if those changes may not be accepted by everyone. One of the most common stressors for my clients is establishing new traditions with their created families while maintaining the traditions with their family of origin. Sometimes it’s impossible for the two to co-exist together, and difficult changes need to be made. A few years ago my husband and I decided that it was too stressful to travel on Christmas day with young children. While this decision changed the holiday experience for us and our extended family, it made things much more manageable. You need to decide what the right balance for you and your family is.
- Take a deep breath when things start feeling overwhelming. Make sure it’s a true deep breath. Most of us have trained ourselves to be chest breathers and very rarely take truly deep breaths. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take a deep breath. If the hand on your chest moves, your breathing is too shallow. The hand on your belly should move as your belly expands. Watch babies and animals breathing – that’s what you’re striving for.
- Don't rely on caffeine to get through the holiday season. I understand, this one is painful. Caffeine can be fabulous. It can perk you up, make long days bearable, and give you that boost that you need to face the shopping crowds. However, it can also boost our heart rate, make us feel jittery and essentially mimic symptoms of anxiety. If you’re already revved up by stress, probably not a good idea to caffeinate.
- Be in the present moment during the enjoyable moments. Often we are on autopilot, especially when we feel that there is a lot to achieve, and we then miss out on the positive effects of a pleasurable moment. During a holiday dinner, truly taste the food that you are eating. Give a friend or family member that you may not see very often all of your attention and focus on the connection between the two of you. Enjoy the quiet moments.
- Make time for exercise. You don’t have to train for a marathon, become a competitive body builder or manage to turn yourself into a human pretzel, especially during a hectic time like the holidays. Just move your body in a way that you enjoy, get the blood pumping, and spend some time doing something that is healthy for both your mind and body.
- Help someone. Help an elderly person load groceries into their cars. Drop off a home cooked meal to a new mom. Turn the focus away from yourself and find a way to make someone else’s day a little better. It doesn’t have to be a long term, highly invested commitment on your part, just a simple act that someone may appreciate. During the holidays, there are usually lots of opportunities to help others.
- Go outside for a few minutes. You don’t have to go on a 100 kilometre hike, just get out of your house or office. Get some fresh air, eyeball some nature and just change up your scenery for a few minutes.
- Stretch. Sitting for long periods of time is bad for our bodies and our minds. Get up, stretch out and get the blood flowing. This is particularly important if you are doing a lot of travelling and are trapped in a car/plane/train for long periods of time.
- Practice being grateful. Experiencing gratitude has many benefits (see here for more information) and the holidays can be an ideal time to exercise our gratitude muscles. Reflect on the last year; what are some of the highlights? What progress did you make? What parts of the holiday celebrations do you most enjoy and feel grateful to be able to participate in?
While is is likely that the holiday season will bring some stress, it is possible to manage the holiday stress and enjoy.