It may be the most wonderful time of year, but Christmas is equally packed with pressures. 51% of women and 35% of men report feeling extra stress around the festive season.
Mindfulness can help with periods of anxiety, and fortify your mental state as you enter the most magical - and demanding - season. It involves “grounding” yourself in the present moment, and allowing your anxious thoughts to pass by with neutral observation.
Here are some mindful tips for staying in control over the holidays:
Put the tech down
There’s nothing wrong with endless reruns of Home Alone - when else can we get away with it? - but it’s important to make sure that your screen time isn’t contributing to holiday stress.
Perhaps you’re so focused on “making memories” with photos that you fail to be present as they happen in real-time. You might become a witness - rather than an active participant - in your activities. Or maybe you’re finding it hard to switch off from other responsibilities and January is looming over your head.
This isn’t just about you: bear in mind that other family members may not appreciate you filming them opening gifts, or checking your emails through Christmas dinner.
You can’t be expected to offer undivided attention for days on end. Instead, aim for “pockets” of high-quality time with your loved ones and away from the phone. When the action subsides, take a moment to decompress, run an errand, or snap a group photo.
Stop the comparison
Social media this time of year is full of people sharing their gifts and moments with loved ones. It’s a great time for checking in on old friends - but comparison rears its head even for the most content of us.
Keep in mind that the urge to “keep up with the Joneses” is natural. You most likely will feel this way over the holidays. But, as natural as it may be, it’s certainly not helpful. Unhealthy comparison might leave you feeling unsatisfied, or lead you to take on responsibilities (mental, time-based, or financial) beyond your means.
Comparison can be useful. What is it that you envy in this person? Are there any reasonable changes you could make to work towards this?
That said, someone else’s success could be down to any combination of hard work, luck, privilege, circumstance, or exaggeration for social media. Most likely you’ll never know the truth deeper than the Facebook post - and that’s fine.
Sometimes a sharp word to yourself is the only thing that can dig you out of the comparison hole. An acquaintance seems to have it all. So what?
Thoughts about others’ supposed success can leave you feeling unworthy or resentful. Let these thoughts pass by, observing them as though you are on the side of a busy road. This isn’t about undermining your insecurities - more noticing your differences and simply letting them be.
Ambition creates progress. However, sometimes it’s so easy to keep chasing the next goal that you don’t realise you have everything your past self strived towards.
Last year, most of us just wanted to see our loved ones safe and happy. Don’t let unnecessary demands creep back in.
Check in on those who need it
This can be a difficult period for those on their own, or whose previous experiences bring up uncomfortable memories over “the season of goodwill”.
Take this time to reach out to neighbours, distant family members, or friends you’ve lost touch with. It could be that they’ve slipped under the net for other people, too. It doesn’t have to be a huge performance - a card, a chat, or a leftover batch of Christmas cookies is enough to show you’re thinking of them.
However, don’t be put out if they’re not bowled away by your efforts. Perhaps they feel that it’s forced by the time of year, or they prefer to manage Christmas their own way.
Perform grounding exercises
Mindfulness can be more structured - like in meditation - or you can implement grounding activities during your daily life. These might be useful around the holidays, when there’s family bustling around your home, or you feel your mind running faster than you can catch it.
Follow the guide below for a short structured exercise. You can set a time (5-10 minutes) or stop when you feel ready.
- Take yourself to somewhere quiet and private.
- Sit comfortably, keeping your back straight. Your hands and feet can be placed where you like - just make sure you’re in a position you can stay in for a while.
- Notice your body; its relation to your chair or the floor. Take slow, regular, deep breaths and observe the feeling of each one leaving your body.
- If your mind wanders, observe where it goes, but try to remain neutral or let your mind run further. Watch it pass as though it were the “traffic” on the busy road. Gently redirect your attention back to focusing on your body and breathing.
- Don’t try too hard to relax “properly” - this will be counterproductive.
- When you’re ready, or your time is up, return to your surroundings.
You can also use similar techniques to help you in a stressful situation, or as a preventative measure to aid your well-being in the long term.
Try implementing these tips on a walk, or when you see yourself becoming overwhelmed:
- Do your best to regulate your breathing, inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply.
- Consider your posture: the feeling of your feet in your shoes; the weight of your arms. Continue breathing and slowly bring yourself into the present.
- If you’re walking, pay attention to your movements. Can you feel the muscles in your feet meeting the ground? Which part meets it first?
- Observe the sensory input around you. If you’re relaxing or walking, this might be calming. What can you hear and smell? What have you noticed that you usually wouldn’t? What do you imagine these things might feel like in your hands?
- If you’re in a busy environment, this could be stressful. Focus on one thing that is physically in the room and create one specific, neutral thought. It might be something like, “Over there is the barking dog”; “This is the phone I am nervous to take a call from”.
- If your mind wanders, guide it back to neutral observation. Using the traffic analogy, your thoughts could be buses - you can watch them pass by, but you don’t have to get on every one.
- When you’re ready to stop, begin to let your thoughts come naturally. Take a few more deep breaths as you refocus your attention.
Make the most of daylight
Leaving for work in the dark and coming home in the dark...sound familiar?
The importance of time outdoors is unparalleled for our well-being. If you have time off over the festive season, take a flask full of something warm and get moving. Most weather apps can predict exactly when daylight hours will be, so it’s easy to plan for those winter sunsets.
While you’re out, use the opportunity to be mindful of your surroundings. What can you hear? How does your body feel as it moves? Do you notice anything new?
You might be someone who takes a walk on Christmas Day - don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it! There’s a weird pleasure in waking up, donning your Santa hat, and heading for the hills (or even the sea, if you’re brave enough). You’ll be met with cheery dogwalkers and build an even bigger appetite for lunch.
Save space for “no”
Pushy relatives inviting themselves; uncomfortable clashes at the dinner table; a friend convinced their five dogs are worthy of an invite. The pressure to keep everyone happy should not interfere with your ability to have a comfortable day.
Clear the air as early as possible, so that everyone has time to plan accordingly. If you suspect somebody may not stick to their part of the deal, it’s acceptable to give them a gentle reminder of your boundaries. Be clear and succinct:
- I’m sorry, but we’ve already made plans for the day.
- I’m afraid I’m not around, but I’d love to see you on [X].
- You’re welcome to come, but [X] will also be there. I want to make sure everyone’s comfortable with that.
- Thanks, but we’d rather have a quiet one this year.
- I’ll be providing [X]. You’re welcome to bring [Y] if you’d prefer.
- I won’t be able to accommodate [X]. I hope you understand.
- That’s something I’d rather talk about another day.
Societal expectations often mean responsibility falls to the same few people year after year. This might be due to age, gender, financial position, or family “hierarchy”.
Women, especially, may be deemed the “natural” cooks, organisers, list makers, gift buyers, gift wrappers, card writers, food shoppers, social mediators, childcarers, tidy-uppers… Even the mental load of keeping others on track is another unspoken task.
Just because your role expects you to put everyone else first, it doesn’t mean you have to. If you are hosting, make sure everyone else pulls their weight, and don’t be afraid to delegate the workload.
When the time comes, try not to be too preoccupied with whether everyone’s having fun or if you’ve perfected the potatoes: you’ve waited all year for this, and you deserve to be part of it.
Mindfulness is designed to protect your wellbeing, but if you’re struggling, seek help from your GP wherever possible.
The Samaritans line is free to use and provides a confidential listening service. As always, they will be open 24/7 all throughout the holidays. The text service SHOUT (85258) is the UK’s first free, confidential texting support service. It is also open 24/7 all year round and will not appear on your bill.
If you’re in the UK and you’re worried about your immediate health, call NHS Direct on 111.