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It’s the Most Stressful Wonderful Time of the Year

The holiday season is considered a time of love and joy, a time of rest and introspection. Most of us associate this time of year with fond childhood memories of baking cookies, decorating the house and waiting anxiously for Santa Clause to make his annual appearance.  However, as an adult , the holidays are often associated with high levels of stress and tension.  So why is that? And how can we ease some of that anxiety and discomfort?

It is possible to get back to those bygone feelings of serenity and childlike anticipation.  Here are a few steps you can take right now to get started.

  1. We can’t go straight to the solution without first diving into the underlying issue. Adults and children are fundamentally different in that adults often struggle to be completely present.  It becomes increasingly difficult to stay in the “here and now  with all of our Children, however, have the innate ability to do just that.  You’ve probably seen a little child playing, completely engaged in their game, feeling pure joy. They are completely anchored in that moment, leaving no room for burdensome thoughts or negative incoming messages. In psychology, this phenomenon is called “flow experience.”  It is a well-known and scientifically proven fact that “anchoring oneself in the present” can help calm feelings of anxiety and stress. It’s a skill that takes some work, but it can be done. This “mental path” of staying in the moment can be created and then deepened in the brain, and practicing will help you access it during an emergency (i.e. a stressful situation).  Think of it as sailing in a safe harbour before you set out into the open sea. Here is an example of how you can train your new neuronal path and create a calmer environment.

Bake some cookies. It sounds simple enough but while you’re doing it, try to stay completely immersed in what you perceive with all your sense in that very moment.  For example, How does the dough feel on your fingers? Is it soft or sticky, warm or cold, etc.? What do you smell? The scent of vanilla? The preheated oven? What can you see? And how does it taste when you finally eat the first cookie?

This exercise can quickly become a challenge since we’re not used to being “fully and completely” immersed in the task at hand. Again and again, thoughts and emotions will come up, making this little experiment more difficult. As you notice those thoughts and feelings coming in, be kind to yourself and try to gently bring your attention back to what you are doing at that very moment. You may need to do this again and again, and thats okay!  It will get easier the more you practice Also, this exercise can be transferred to any activity. For example, during a conversation with a relative this Christmas, try and stay fully present by recognizing drifting thoughts, or an increasing urge to check your phone. Instead, regroup and return to what you are doing in that moment.

  1. Next, take a hard look at that holiday to-do list. Studies by Researcher Gabriela Jiga-Boy show our brain perceives events with a set date (e.g. a deadline, or in this case…. Christmas) as closer in time the more effortful they are. So, the more items on our to-do list, the less time we feel we have to complete them.  It’s a neat trick our brain uses to make sure we get everything done in time, but it can also cause increased stress levels. Here are a few ways to stop that vicious cycle:
    • Do some to-do list cleanup! Ask yourself questions like, “do all of these items really need to be done by Christmas or New Year? Can some of them get postponed to a later date? A shorter list will not only look more manageable, it will help ease the anxiety surrounding each task.
    • Break up any bigger tasks into smaller steps! Your brain perceives less complex tasks as requiring less effort, which makes you feel you have more time to complete them.(Yay, we gained time!) Also, smaller goals and more regular checkpoints have been linked to increased performance.
    • Last but not least, once broken into smaller chunks, complete one task before starting another. Constant switching between tasks not only directly increases our stress levels it can also make your brain work harder to keep everything straight. Think of how your computer slows the more tabs and applications you try using at the same time. That increased complexity can make you feel like you have less time to complete each task, therefore increasing pressure and stress.

    3. Finally, it’s important to have realistic expectations and accept your own imperfections. This deeply-rooted desire for perfection can often be found in so-called core beliefs, which were likely formed during our childhoods. For example, a child gets praise and attention whenever his room is spotless. If it’s not spotless, he gets less attention and therefore connects the behaviour of perfectly tidying/cleaning his room, with a reward from his parents (attention and praise). He’ll continue to clean and keep things tidy to continue getting the reward, thus cultivating a core belief that may sound something like, “I will only get attention if I keep my place spotless!” In adulthood, spotlessly cleaning and tidying the flat every day may no longer lead to any direct “reward,” but the core belief persists. Core beliefs are as individual as human beings themselves and most of us have quite a few of them. However, they can be more of a hindrance than a help as adults by upping our anxiety and stress levels. The best thing you can do to deal with these core beliefs is to acknowledge and then critically question them. The consequences of disregarding one of these beliefs are usually less severe in adulthood than in childhood.  For example, you may ask yourself,  “Do I really have to host the perfect Christmas dinner?” “Who even sets the standards for this?” “Am I really expected to visit all of my relatives over the three Christmas holidays?”  Mistakes and imperfections are part of our lives, and they provide opportunities to learn and grow.  They can help us reposition ourselves, and make “better” decisions in the future.

Recognizing unhealthy patterns and developing a kind and gracious attitude towards yourself can help you feel better, regain balance, and experience the holiday season with less stress and more serenity.  Not only can this help throughout the entire year, but it just might resurrect those feelings of carefree, childlike wonder in time for Christmas.

Authors: Nina Strasser, BSc., Mag. Cornelia Kastner


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