How To Mindfully Manage Holiday Stress 

Melissa Bennett-Heinz


Another holiday season is now upon us - where has the last year gone? As the years of my time on earth are multiplying, it seems like I was still a little girl not long ago. My childhood memories of holidays are full of wonder, surprise, and magic. I fondly recall enjoying foods and treats that were only available during this one time of year, believing innocently in Jolly Ole Saint Nick who was going to somehow deliver presents to all the world's children in one night, special decore adorned our home attached with stories passed down from generations, and my family gathered together and with loved ones near and from afar. We celebrated, sang, laughed, and loved. I didn't yet know what holiday stress was, did not know grief and loss, and was unaware of scarcity as there was always enough for us. My family of origin wasn't wealthy, in fact, quite the opposite, but the holidays were not saturated with stress, pressure, and scarcity. Rather, they were overflowing with grace, connection, and abundance. 

Feeling particularly nostalgic as I age, acknowledging more than half my life being over, I am longing for a sense of innocence and simplicity that I once knew. The pandemic shook things up for a while and brought people together in new ways, and though we were socially isolated, there was a sense that we were all in this together, and an appreciation for the simple things was tangible and spoken. That fearful time of living in tragedy and lockdown, strangely brought hope and gratitude, knowing that life is fragile, experiencing loss daily instilled a newfound momentum to cherish each moment and make the most of the small things. There seemed to be a return to living more simply, staying closer to home, cooking more meals in our kitchens, sharing recipes, and valuing connection and contact in a way I have not felt in years. 

Most locations globally, by now, have returned to "normal" functioning and have been for some time. When did the pandemic end? I didn't receive the announcement that we've made it to the other side - there were no celebrations, time to pause, reflect, and take in what we survived when so many worldwide did not. There are no hard and fast definitions that define an epidemic or pandemic, and there is also no definition of what ends one, as well. The pandemic ending feels so anti-climactic. I have been left with a sense of confusion and as life has quietly resumed to "normal" over the past year, I find myself wondering what we all learned about life and living from this collective tragedy. Today, social media feeds, advertisements, pop-ups, and news headlines all plague the reader/viewer with fear of economic crises and inflation, with a steady push to buy and consume more, travel more, dine in restaurants - all more! The world appears to have moved from one stressful situation smack back into another, and again, here is upon us yet another stressful holiday season.  

The terms mindfulness and self-care have had an upsurge since the world began to lock down early in 2020. I wonder where it went as part of the collective conversation that so many were having and hearing. Yes, we all see advertisements, and social media is dominated by ad after ad of buying subscriptions for yoga and meditation apps but the practice of mindfulness came and quickly flew out the window. 

What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a state of being present in the moment, without judgment. Mindfulness is particularly helpful because, with this practice, we free ourselves from distractions, judgment, the inner dialogue fueled by stories we tell ourselves, and harsh criticism and fear. What comes with a mindfulness practice, is to have the choice to become aware of your thoughts and feelings without allowing them to take over, you are now taking "control" of your thoughts and experiences by paying attention to them, naming them for what they are, acknowledging and feeling feelings, and, in turn, you will become less affected negatively.  Mindfulness is linked to changes that take place in both the body and the brain's production of hormones and other naturally produced chemicals. These changes affect our health in positive ways such as improving sleep, decreasing stress, mood stability, attitude, and outlooks becoming more positive, and improving overall emotional and physical well-being. 

To break it down even further under the umbrella practice of mindfulness, here are four actionable steps: 

1) Take care of yourself: The holiday season is about giving and if you're not taking care of yourself first, you cannot be fully available to give to anyone else. Paying particular attention to getting plenty of sleep and regularly exercising or moving your body will automatically reduce stress and will leave you feeling more grounded overall.  Reserve 5-10 minutes a day and commit to doing a guided meditation (there are free apps available), a ritual that reduces stress. 

2) Turn holiday traditions into mindful moments: no matter what you are observing, the holidays are abundant with sensory-rich traditions from cooking meals to baking festive treats, shopping for decorations/gifts, and strolling through neighborhoods or city sidewalks adorned in décor and lights. These are all moments that you can experience more mindfully through your five senses. For example, while visiting a Christmas tree lot, consider taking a nice, slow inhale through your nose. What do you smell? Take a moment to listen - is there music playing in the background? Glance around - what does the area around you look like? Are there holiday lights strung up? Are there decorated trees? How does the air feel against your skin? This simple exercise helps you to attend and tune into your body, ground yourself in the present, and cultivate a sense of calm. By practicing mindfulness during these moments, you can learn to weave this practice into your daily life

3) Reframe the approach to stressful situations: Acceptance and gratitude can quickly take the stress out of situations. Consider incorporating a practice of gratitude as part of your daily routine throughout the holidays - perhaps this will be the beginning of a lifestyle rather than a temporary habit. Take a moment, pause, and count your blessings during a gratitude meditation and acknowledge gratitude for things such as warmth, food, and health, or by keeping a gratitude journal and writing them down. Research has proven that actively practicing gratitude tends to increase overall feelings of happiness and reduce stress. Are you stressed as you look at the list of gifts you need to buy? Rather than focusing on the entire list, pick one person and focus your attention on your feelings of love, warmth, and gratitude for them. Is your flight delayed? Acknowledge the frustration, remind yourself delays when flying are beyond your control, and take the opportunity to read, play a game, or listen to a podcast before all the festivities start. View the extra time as a valuable gift. Gratitude can help to soften the mind and reduce the intensity of stress, making room to choose a thoughtful present. 

4) Reframe loneliness: the holidays can feel stressful as they can bring up feelings of loneliness. You may have recently lost a loved one, or perhaps you live further from the people you would like to celebrate with preventing you from being together. Perhaps the relationships with your family are complicated, or there's no relationship with your family at all. When loneliness begins to creep up, most people resist and avoid it, looking for a distraction. Loneliness is painful and can be difficult to sit with, and it makes sense to want to escape challenging emotions. The solution is not always escaping those emotions, and as counterintuitive as it may sound, there is a benefit when taking the approach of leaning into the feeling. The more we allow our minds and body to be present with feelings as they are experienced, the more familiar they become and easier to tolerate. So, when feelings of loneliness surface, just notice them, without judging yourself for feeling the way you do. Take a breath and invite the feeling to wash over you - and then to also pass. The more you can be present with loneliness in this manner, the less you will identify with the associated thoughts and emotions, and the more neutral you may feel. When you take time to investigate loneliness and examine and understand it, the resulting awareness can help you find a greater sense of ease with the emotion itself.

"Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience."


Jon Kabat-Zinn