Health & Wellness

A Mindful Approach to Holiday Stress

Simple strategies that may help take the anxiety out of the season.

Hanging decorations, exchanging gifts, spending time with family. Remember when the holidays were your favorite time of year? Sure, there are still plenty of fun, happy moments folded into the season, but it isn’t hard to feel frazzled by long visits with relatives, traveling (planes, trains, and automobiles!), and holiday parties. In fact, more than 1 in 5 adults feels “extreme” levels of stress during the season, according to the American Psychological Association

When you’re around old friends and family members, and especially if you’re traveling to a place where you spent your childhood, your brain may be flooded with memories and emotions that may throw you off balance, says Miles Neale, PsyD, a Buddhist psychotherapist and a clinical instructor of psychology at Cornell Medical College.

All the season’s food-based delicacies—treats around your office or goodies at festive soirees—could create some anxiety, too, Neale says.

Fortunately, there are simple, mindful ways to help calm your seasonal stress.

Focus on your five senses.

Maybe you’re running late for a party or trying not to lose your temper with Aunt Mary. When negative emotion creeps in, take a moment to cycle through your senses, one by one, and focus on what each is experiencing. What does the turkey in the kitchen smell like, and what color are the decorations around the house? When you feel stressed or anxious, your brain may be in a state of over-excitement, Neale says. By paying attention to immediate sensory cues, you’ll potentially draw attention away from the anxious thoughts chasing each other around your brain, and refocus them on the world around you.

Get off to a strong start.

If you’re in for a long day at your in-laws or have a thousand errands to run, start the morning with a 10-minute meditation. This may help change your baseline so that you begin the day with a calmer mind and nervous system, rather than feeling stressed, Neale explains. Sit quietly and focus on your breathing, or on those here-and-now sensory cues.

Take a break from all the “celebrating.”

With so much going on, it might be easy to detour from your usual habits so you can attend every gathering or meet every family obligation, Neale says. His advice: “Don’t abandon your normal routines of self-care or those things that you rely on to keep yourself balanced.” If you go for a walk every morning, keep doing that even if you’re visiting relatives. If you want, ask them to join. Feeling frazzled? At least once a day, focus on doing something just for you, not for everyone else. Read, attend a yoga class, or do an activity that helps you unwind, he says.

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Take it to another level.

When anxiety reaches “I’m going to scream” extremes, Neale doesn’t advocate mindfulness techniques. In those situations, removing yourself by taking a 10-minute walk to clear your head is probably your best move, he says. In fact, any kind of physical activity may help. “Anxiety is basically too much energy in your nervous system, and physical exercise — walking, yoga, swimming — is well documented to help relieve that energy.” If you can, head outdoors to a park or natural setting: preliminary research from Stanford University  shows that a dose of nature may help  distract you from focusing on your problems which could help reduce your stress levels even more.