Tis the season! The season for family and Christmas music and good food and… stress. During the holidays, we juggle busy schedules, celebrations, family dynamics, high expectations and complicated emotions. And this year, many of us are still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Harvey. That means that our “starting point” for stress may be higher this year than it has been in previous years. And therefore, ideally, it should also be the season for good coping skills. In case you feel a need to add to your coping repertoire or simply brush up on your existing skills, here are some practical ideas for you to try this holiday season.
1. Diaphragmatic breathing. This is the lynchpin of relaxation exercises that can and should be combined with anything else on this list. Often when we are feeling stressed, our breathing becomes shallow, causing our chest and shoulders to move. For diaphragmatic breathing, the goal is to fill your lungs so that your diaphragm is pushed downward, causing your stomach to pooch out. Your shoulders and chest should remain still. Don’t slow down your breathing to the point that you feel suffocated. If you can, simply try to linger a bit on the exhale.
2. Progressive muscle relaxation. This is exactly what it sounds like. You are simply walking through the muscles in your body, relaxing them as you go. One method for this is to imagine that your hands and feet are made of lead and so heavy that the rest of your muscles have to relax to accommodate them. Another alternative is to tense your muscles and then relax them one by one – starting with feet, moving up to legs, arms, core, shoulders, neck, face, scalp. Don’t forget to practice your diaphragmatic breathing while you do this!
3. Mindfulness. This is a state of mind where you intentionally notice. Notice what you see, hear, smell, and feel. Notice your thoughts, positive and negative. Notice tension in your muscles. The idea is to avoid judging. Your sensations and thoughts don’t need to be evaluated or “fixed.” You can simply notice them and then let them go. If you need help with this exercise, there are even mobile apps that you can use to help you practice mindfulness. A popular example is Headspace.
4. Exercise. This is a mood freebie, ya’ll! You don’t have to go to a Crossfit class. Just break a sweat regularly, even if it’s through a brisk walk. Your body will release endorphins, and you will feel better with minimal effort on your part.
5. Sunshine. Another freebie! Remember that walk – just take it outside in the sunshine. Without practicing any elaborate strategy, you will elevate your mood.
6. “Zone-out activities”. Sometimes you just need a mental and physical break. This is when sometimes people feel tempted to pour another glass of wine or binge on another show. It is a good idea to have an arsenal of mindless, distracting activities that are not addictive or destructive. Examples could be coloring, knitting, playing fetch with the dog or cleaning.
7. Journaling (or talking with a trusted friend). This is an excellent way to cope with strong emotions that may come up during the holidays, especially anger. In the past, the mental health community thought that anger could be dealt with by letting it out – by shouting, throwing something or punching a punching bag. Over time, however, research has shown that this sort of angry reaction actually causes the emotion to increase rather than decrease. In contrast, verbal expression of angry feelings caused the anger to begin to dissipate. So rather than punching the punching bag, try writing or talking when you feel your anger beginning to build.
8. Go easy on the alcohol! Stress plus availability of alcohol can be a tricky combo during the holidays. Set for yourself a number of drinks that you are allowed for the evening, and then be intentional about not going past your limit. If you feel that you “need” another drink to help with your stress, look back at the rest of this list and put one of the other strategies into practice instead.
9. Give yourself an out. Feeling stuck can be stressful under the best circumstances. If you feel stuck with difficult family, it can be downright panic-inducing. Give yourself permission to take breaks. Leave the house for your walk, coffee with a friend or a trip to the store.
May your holiday season be full of love and joy, even if those positive feelings live right alongside your stress!