Making the Holidays More Blissful
December 2, 2022 at 5:30 p.m.
By embracing patience and kindness you can remove a lot of the stress from holidays. Mental health experts say it is okay to decline an invitation, if you are reaching the limits of your time, stamina, and emotional availability. Family dynamics in particular can be complicated and fraught with differences in values or points of views. “Be willing to put these conflicts on hold. The discussion can take place at a later date,” said Dr. Elizabeth Ochoa, who is an assistant professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York.
Psychologist Michael Rollock with the Medical College of Georgia says if you want to make the holidays a bit merrier, try rethinking how you view stress. He said stress has a terrible reputation, but it too has some redeemable qualities. “In the spirit of the holiday season, let’s give stress a fair shake by learning a bit more about it and how we can tame it or make it work for us,” said Rollock.
Stress is simply our body's response to anything that requires attention or action. Rollock said stress causes feelings of physical, emotional, or psychological strain that arises in the face of a challenge. “Your breathing becomes short and shallow, your muscles tighten, you have anxious thoughts, your heart rate increases, and although you can’t tell, your blood vessels contract,” said Rollock.
A recent poll by the American Psychological Association found that significant stress about inflation, violence, crime, the current political climate, and the racial climate. He said this unfortunately forms the backdrop for most adults this holiday season. “When we then add in the holiday-specific sources of stress including entertaining, shopping, travel, finding gifts, money, parties, baking, family or the absence of these things, it is clear that we need some stress busters in our stockings this year,” said Rollock.
Some powerful evidence-based tips include the Relaxation Response, which slows your heart rate, relaxes your muscles, calms your mind, and helps you to make more values-based decisions instead of being driven by your stress. Rollock recommends diaphragmatic breathing, which includes sitting or lying in a comfortable place, and closing your eyes.
“Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen. The bottom hand should do the moving. The top hand should remain still or only move as the bottom hand moves,” said Rollock. “Inhale through your nose for about 4 seconds, feeling your abdomen expand. You may feel slight tension the first few times you inhale.”
It is recommended that you hold your breath for 2 seconds and then exhale very slowly and steadily through your mouth for about 6 seconds. The mouth should be relaxed. Repeat for 5-15 minutes as often as possible. “Regular practice can actually retrain your nervous system and brain so that you become more resilient and calmer in the face of holiday stress,” said Rollock.
Reframe Unhelpful Thoughts
How we think about something can affect how we feel. Even if something is objectively stressful, challenging negative thoughts about the event can help keep your stress from spiraling out of control. The first step is identifying the negative thoughts. This is followed by interrupting and challenging those thoughts, and then coming up with a more realistic or positive alternative. Basically, it is a reframe.
Rollock cites a good example where a relative says the turkey you made is dry and you should just stick to deserts. Before you let it bother you, interrupt it by reframing it and just because someone says something nasty about you doesn’t mean it’s true. “This reframe prevents someone else’s negative judgment from becoming part of how you view yourself and it recognizes the problem as temporary and situational rather than permanent,” said Rollock.
This holiday season there will be moments when we fail to live up to our own expectations or just fail at a task. We may feel inadequate at times when comparing ourselves to others who appear to be doing better. “We can be our own harshest critic, especially during the holidays. Self-compassion is simply the process of turning compassion inward. It is what happens when we are kind and understanding rather than harshly self-critical. It is when we give ourselves support and encouragement rather than being cold and judgmental,” said Rollock.
Research suggests that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience a person has, radically improving their mental and physical wellbeing. “One simple but powerful technique to access your self-compassion is to give yourself the same kindness and care you would give to a good friend, said Rollock.
Stay Active to Boost Happiness Levels
Exercise releases endorphins, which are stress-relieving biochemicals that improve your mood. It also reduces stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. “Regular physical activity during the holidays is one of the best things you can do for stress management” said Rollock. “Also, if the activity you choose is one you truly enjoy and if you do it with someone you like, this will increase your motivation to keep a regular exercise routine.”
There is a lot to love about the holidays, but when you’re in the 50 and over club, He said most of what you’re doing at holiday time is cooking, cleaning, decorating, shopping, travelling, volunteering, and playing family psychologist, and referee. “As you consider your own self-care this holiday season, remember the heart’s lesson in compassion: feed yourself first and feed yourself well, nutritionally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Then share from this bounty with others,” said Rollock.
Christa Coleman, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Penn State College of Medicine, said during the holidays many of us take on more responsibilities and can become overwhelmed if we don’t set healthy limits. She said some people might be stressed around the holidays by being around certain people or missing loved ones.
“Many of us have strong memories and emotions around special occasions. Don’t ignore your feelings. It’s important to acknowledge these situations and events. This can be done by having a special moment to remember a loved one who has passed, passing on a tradition, or even starting a new tradition,” said Coleman.
The pandemic has definitely impacted stress for most people over the last few years. Coleman said at the beginning, many people didn’t see their loved ones to avoid spreading the virus. “We are definitely at a better place than we were in 2020 with understanding how to keep ourselves and others safe. Yet, people have found other creative ways to connect, even without being there in person. I think some of this will stay,” said Coleman.
John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.