December 4, 2023 – The holiday season is just around the corner, bringing with it a plethora of activities and obligations. There are gifts to buy, parties to attend, cookies to bake, latkes to fry, and families to entertain. The stress can be relentless, and the expectations can be overwhelming.
Amidst the hustle and bustle, a new study finds that inflation, tight finances, and global events are triggering additional pressure, leaving many Americans feeling even more stressed and overwhelmed this holiday season. More than half of the respondents are also still concerned about the increase in COVID-19 and flu cases, both of which can become unwelcome guests at social gatherings.
Nicole Hollingshead, PhD, psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, said the survey results truly underscore the need to take a step back. „We know from research, especially regarding cognitive behavioral therapies, that what you do can really influence how you feel,“ she said.
Stop living „from the neck up“
„Doing“ starts with being connected to ourselves, explains Sonia Jhas, a Toronto-based mindset expert and author of I’ll Start Again Tomorrow (And Other Lies I’ve Told Myself). „Many of us live ‚from the neck up‘ in the swirl of noise and self-inflicted narratives,“ she said. „We don’t ask ourselves, ‚What are my values?‘ and ‚What are my criteria for the holiday season?'“
Jhas recommends that people create a „Mindset Manifesto“ before the holidays to establish expectations for the holiday season.
„Go back and ask what you yourself want for the holiday season,“ she said. „Do I want ease? Do I want comfort? Do I want support? All of this can erase the self-limiting beliefs we hold about ourselves. The key is to have clarity in advance before getting caught in the fire, so that we have a better chance of making these bumps feel like little blips rather than major derailments.“
This practice of setting expectations (or setting intentions) is one of the key strategies recommended by Inger Burnett-Zeigler PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct clinical professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, not only for the holidays but for daily life.
„This is where you begin to take care of yourself and can assess where boundaries need to be set,“ she said. „This can relate to what boundaries you set when you are financially restricted, so that you don’t feel stressed about spending.“ Or what you are willing to do; for example, committing to only take on part of the cooking and letting others handle the rest.“
The concept of mindfulness simply means taking a pause, a moment to connect with one’s own body, a strategy that can be particularly helpful in stressful situations.
„Energy without oxygen is synonymous with anxiety,“ says Kim Buchanan, a holistic healer and wellness expert from Roxboro, North Carolina. „We are never taught how to breathe properly, and if you look back at times when you felt anxious, you’ll probably find that you weren’t breathing.“
„Proper“ breathing in times of stress can mean calmly and consciously breathing from the belly, inhaling slowly for 6 seconds through the nose, and then exhaling for 6 seconds through the nose with the mouth closed. The process, said Buchanan, „sends a message to our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body.“
When it comes to breathing, it’s all about the three A’s: Awareness, Intention, and Attention. Buchanan said she takes a step back every morning upon waking, focusing on her breath and setting her intentions for what she would like to see positively.
„You have awareness that something is going to happen, like the anxiety and baggage we carry when we’re with family,“ she explained. „You pay attention to what the triggers are. And then you work on defining your intention so that you can change your approach to the situation when it arises.“
Buchanan said it can also make a difference whether you engage in a political argument with someone or „lead with heart,“ whether you consider a peaceful approach to deal with the drama or a difficult person, or whether you shift your focus to something you’re grateful for, like a beautiful flower arrangement in the room.
„I call it grounding in the present moment,“ said Elena Sonnino, life coach and speaker from Baltimore. „Many people behave a little differently at this time of year; they’re pulled in countless directions and thrown off balance from what’s important to them,“ she said.
„That’s why I encourage people to do some kind of daily practice that keeps them in their body (as opposed to their head). Whether it’s breathing or cuddling in bed with a pet, these mini moments are conscious, deliberate pauses about how the person wants to feel, like at the end of a party or a family gathering.“
Sonnino also pointed out another important aspect. „Two things can be true at the same time,“ she said. „I can be joyful about an aspect of the holiday and be completely stressed about things in the world. By naming it and giving myself permission slip, I don’t have to go so far down the rabbit hole.“
Take Small Measures
For people who don’t live in a partnership or have a large family, don’t have children, or live far from their families, the holidays can be a lonely time. This is a stress factor that, according to Burnett-Zeigler, occurs all too often but is less often discussed.
„This is where mindfulness comes into play,“ she said, „where people shift from the comparison zone and the social media zone back into the present moment and consciously engage with people or activities that bring them joy“ (e.g., reaching out to a friend or creating a holiday scene for their home).
„Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for cracking the code at the holidays,“ said Jhas. „Break it down into small pieces, connect with your mind and body, and remember that you are there for you,“ she said. „It only takes a few small pieces to create a different anchor.“