Reduce the Stress of the Holidays with Mindfulness

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For many, the upcoming holiday season is a time of joy and excitement, but for others, the holidays can bring a different group of emotions such as anxiety, sadness, resentment, and even uncertainty.  That’s because, the holiday season brings with it a whole host of stressors that can contribute to distressing emotions – financial, family, time management, unhealthy eating patterns, social connections, etc.

However, the use of Mindfulness during the holiday season may be helpful in reducing the effects of these stressors, as well as cultivate self-compassion and gratitude for others.

Mindfulness, the practice of present-moment awareness, has been shown to reduce anxiety, lower heart rate, and pulse, help with emotional regulation and improve overall well-being.

Over four decades of scientific research has shown that practicing Mindfulness 5-10 minutes per day for 8 weeks changes the neuroplasticity of your brain in the area that allows for emotional regulation and higher-order thinking, reducing your “Fight, Flight or Freeze” reaction that contributes to impulsive reactions and negative thought patterns, which leads to distressing emotions.

So, for example, when you’re at Thanksgiving, and your mom complains about the turkey being dry (that you cooked), instead of immediately going to a negative thought pattern – “I must be a terrible cook, I can’t do anything right,” your brain pauses, assesses and redirects to more rational thinking -- “That comment isn’t about me.  Mom always complains.  I am going to focus on the joy of being together.”

Below are several ways to practice Mindfulness during the holidays

Formal meditation

Mindfulness can be cultivated by formal meditations.  As mentioned, by meditating 5-10 minutes a day for 8 weeks, you can change the way your brain responds to stressful events.  Below are several free smartphone apps you can download and use to help strengthen your practice, as well as use to help relax, calm or redirect during stressful situations.

  • Insight Timer
  • Calm
  • Headspace

Train Your Brain to Be Present

Many times, anxiety, depression and anger are exacerbated by negative thought patterns and rumination.  Our brain has a habitual pattern of responding to interactions or situations, and can manifest in irrational thinking or distorted thoughts.  To help redirect and be more mindful of what is happening in the present moment, you can use the following redirection or grounding techniques to train your brain to switch to the “here and now.”

1) Use your senses.  The moment you begin to feel anxiety or your mind wanders to unhealthy thoughts, acknowledge them (because we don't want to dismiss any emotions), but see if you can redirect and go to your senses -- what do you smell, taste, feel, hear, see? to help reconnect to the present moment to reduce the intensity and duration of the thoughts.   Or just focus specifically on all the sounds around you.

2) Focus on your breath -- Take 10 deep breaths.  Imagine a ray of light breathing into your body and washing away the anxiety or anger.

3) Focus on your body -- Do a quick body scan - going through each one of your body parts to feel different sensations and emotions in your body.  You might hold your emotions in your hands, stomach, chest, shoulders, etc., but begin to focus on each body part to help reduce your distressing emotions.

4)  STOP acronym to redirect - S =Stop/T=Take several deep breaths/O=Observe what's going on around you, within you; P = Proceed to present moment.  Practice this at every "STOP" sign or red light to cultivate the practice.

5) Pick a color -- green, blue, yellow, etc. and be mindful of all the things in the room or outside with that color to help redirect to present moment.

Mindful Listening

Many times, we bring past experiences, judgments, biases or expectations into our interactions with others.  This may be especially true during the holiday season when we are “forced” to interact with family members with whom we find difficult or have had previous conflict.  In these interactions, we may already be formulating our response or reacting to emotions before the other person has completed their sentence.

Mindful listening is the practice of being fully present and aware in your interactions with others.   The goal of mindful listening is to silence your inner thoughts, biases and judgments so you can hear the whole message, allowing the other person to feel understood.  So, when Aunt Edna complains about her various illnesses or cousin Susan can’t stop talking about her new boyfriend, notice any emotions or thoughts that bubble up during that conversation, acknowledge whatever you’re feeling and redirect to listening fully.  You may recognize that instead of annoyance, you are cultivating empathy, recognizing that maybe Aunt Edna is afraid and lonely, and Susan just wants to feel loved and connected.

Finally, being Mindful also includes treating yourself with kindness and self-compassion.  Asking yourself “what do I need for myself right now?” and being present to your needs and emotions, giving yourself the gift of Mindfulness during the holidays.

For more information about Mindfulness, or to participate in a future 8-week Mindfulness course, visit


Erin Swinson, LMHC
Clarity Clinic

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