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Savvy Smarts: Beating Holiday Stress in Three Simple Steps

Savvy Smarts: Beating Holiday Stress in Three Simple Steps

By Dr. Dennis Tirch ~

The Holiday Season is meant to remind us of love, hopefulness, and the warmth of human kindness during the coldest and darkest time of the year.  Yet we can easily see how the mad rush of holiday shopping, stressful schedules, and the pressure to buy and do more than the last year, or the next person, can generate anxiety and stress. Media reports about the frenzy of “Black Friday” shopping are a reminder that about 70% of Americans experience significant stress as they go through the range of holiday preparations, with worries about not having enough time, money or other resources to make the holidays happy. It seems that a hard charging chase for a certain kind of happiness can result in a great deal of stress.

How can we find a way to calm this anxiety, and return to the purpose, perhaps even the joy, that this season is aimed to provide? Funnily enough, the cutting edge of psychology research would suggest that the three classic holiday concepts, “Peace, Love and Understanding,” provide us with three easy steps to calm anxiety, worry, and stress. These three ideas relate to three central steps that can be learned quickly, and can provide us with direction throughout our lives:

1. Peace through Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a concept that cognitive behavioral psychologists have imported from ancient Buddhist meditation practices, with great effects.  In its essence, mindfulness is a special way of paying attention to our experiences, by contacting the present moment, on purpose, and with acceptance of things just as they are.  Rather than being absorbed by our thoughts about the past or worries about the future, we take a moment to rest in the breath, observing all of the comings and goings of our minds as events unfolding before our watchful, awake, observer self.  Research has demonstrated that mindfulness is highly effective for the treatment of anxiety, depression and a range of other psychological difficulties.  The brief exercise below can be used just about anywhere to bring a taste of mindful awareness to your day, and to help you deal with the stress of the holiday season through peacefully abiding in the moment.

Tip: “Taking 10 Mindful Breaths” – When you notice that you are caught up in stress related emotions, feeling hurried, or beginning to run on “autopilot,” take a moment to pause in the present moment.  Take a few seconds to simply close your eyes and rest in your experience of breathing.  If you’re standing, sit down if possible, and allow yourself a comfortable, relaxed posture.  Follow the rising and falling of your abdomen and ribs as the air slowly moves in and out of the body.  As you breathe in, feel yourself rooted to the earth, noticing the contact of your feet on the ground.  As you breathe out, notice a sense of letting go.  Allow your exhalation to lengthen and your breath to slow down. Do this for the duration of 10 breaths, and then exhale and let go of this exercise completely.  Simply notice whatever physical sensations, thoughts and emotions present themselves to you as you complete the practice, and move back into the flow of your daily activity.  You have begun to give yourself some contact with the peaceful stillness of mindful awareness in the space of a few breaths.

2. Love and Compassion

Fundamentally, the term “compassion” means sensitivity to the presence of suffering in others and in ourselves, coupled with a deep desire to alleviate that suffering.  Ongoing behavioral and neurobiological research demonstrates that our experience of compassion is essential to our psychological and physical health. When we experience loving kindness, and the supportive presence of loved ones, our stress response, and our anxiety, is calmed, as the threat system in our brains is down regulated.  This soothing influence allows us to experience courage, and face challenges in our lives.  Recent research in compassion focused psychotherapy has found that we can gradually practice exercises in self-compassion, that build up our capacity to self-soothe in the presence of stress and fear.  The following, brief self-compassion exercise can be used to experiment with how important loving kindness can be in helping us to face life’s challenges.

Tip: “Holding Yourself in Compassion” – This next exercise builds on our little mindfulness practice above.  After you have taken 10 mindful breaths, resting in the breath for a little while, we’re going to take a small leap into self-kindness.  According to researcher, Dr. Kristin Neff, the simple gesture of giving yourself a hug can help you to feel a sense of self-compassion and soothing.  Comforting touch, such as a hug, activates our oxytocin system.  As odd as it may seem, when you are feeling anxious, worried, guilty or harried, a kind and tender physical gesture towards yourself can bring you into contact with self-soothing.  So, when you are feeling these difficult emotions, allow yourself to pause for 10 mindful breaths, and then simply fold your arms across your heart, and give yourself a gentle, kind squeeze.  As you do this, feeling the physical warmth and care of the gesture, you can share a few supportive words with yourself. For example, you might say, “I know how hard this has been for you today.  I want you to know that I wish you to be happy, to be at ease and to feel peacefulness.  I’ll be here for you along the way.  Try this practice as often as it feels right to you, and begin to gradually cultivate your capacity for self-compassion

3. Understanding through Acceptance

Despite how much we might wish to push away uncomfortable emotions or difficult thoughts, life has a way of bringing the trickiest feelings and experience right back into the forefront of our awareness.  Research has demonstrated that the more we try to avoid or suppress an emotion or thought, the more stubbornly such mental events pop into our minds and hearts.  Beyond this, living a life of meaning, vitality and purpose often involves facing challenges and tasks that we would rather not have to deal with.  The more we can practice acceptance in the face of difficult experiences, the greater we can develop a range of motion, resilience and distress tolerance in the face of painful experiences.

Tip: “Choosing Willingness” – The next time you face some difficult feelings and stressful circumstances, practice some peace love and understanding. Begin with the 10 mindful breaths as we described above.  After these breaths, take a few moments to hold yourself in compassion, feeling empowered by your self-soothing, and the authority and courage that comes with feeling loving and feeling loved.  Think about the challenge you face, and ask yourself to step willingly forward to meet the stress head on.  Ask yourself if you are willing to face whatever is necessary in order to live your life fully and with meaning.  For example, you might feel anxiety and stress when heading out for holiday shopping.  Perhaps crowds make you anxious, or maybe there are painful memories of past holidays present for you.  After practicing some mindfulness and self compassion, simply ask yourself, “If feeling this anxiety is a necessary part of living my life in a way that feels right to me, that brings purpose or happiness into my world, am I willing to feel this anxiety?”

Often, the empowerment, choice and courage that mindfulness, compassion and acceptance can bring, will allow us to face stress with greater ease and strength.  What better way to meet holiday stress than with a little peace, love and understanding?  Perhaps lessons like this were part of why our ancestors established rituals like our holiday season.  It certainly wasn’t designed exclusively for shopping and traffic, was it?

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Dennis D. Tirch, PhD, is associate director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, founder and director of The Center for Mindfulness and Compassion Focused Therapy and serves as adjunct assistant clinical professor at Weill-Cornell Medical College. He is the author of The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Calm Worry, Panic, and Fear. For more information, www.MindfulCompassion.com.

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