"Hallelujah! Where's the Tylenol?"
Is it ever a good idea to spray the bottom of your sled with cooking spray? Picture children clapping as flames spit behind your sled. There is no catch-fence between you and your neighbor’s tree. You are wearing no helmet on a steep icy hill, head-first. The race has to be perfect. The holidays encourage us to take the same risks with our well-being.
Most of us put heavy expectations on ourselves. The perfect meal, the perfect decorations, even the perfect white elephant gift under $6. Stress significantly increases our risk for mental and physical exhaustion, less joy, depression, heart attacks, substance abuse, sleep disorders, chronic head and backaches among others. How do we handle these risks before we slide down the hill?
Combat Stress with Mindfulness
Nothing can force you to feel stressed. Stress isn’t happening to you. Instead, something about the holidays isn’t meeting your expectations and you are choosing to feel stressed about it. The first step is to recognize your thoughts and feelings. Be curious about your perceptions. Why am I feeling this now? What do I think is happening to me? When you stop worrying about what you cannot control, you will have more energy for the things you can control. There are many ways to make stress lighter while you practice training your mind.
Be sure to exercise like a Spartan. Remember even a ten-minute walk is therapeutic for warriors. Relax by jumping into an ice pool. If that doesn’t appeal to you, a warm shower can improve blood flow and relieve tired muscles. Deepen your breathing. Inhale for four breaths, exhale for four breaths. Then try jumping into an ice pool to marvel at the body’s ability to control breath. Slow down and be present. One thing at a time. Research has shown you can even get more done. Put on speedos, then your pink hair cap, then jump into the ice pool like a Spartan. Seriously, take a pause. Hide in a closet if you must. Sure, do yoga, meditate, be in nature. For the rest of us with hectic holidays, you need to find a place where you can downregulate your central nervous system.
Shift Your Perspective
Perfectionism is an all-or-nothing mentality with rules. Your holiday is an endless report card and the teacher is really stressed out about shopping tonight. If you think you should buy the biggest tree or none at all, wonder why you didn’t get the tree with more coverage at the base, fear that no one will see your tree as the biggest, worry that you won’t receive the ribbon for the biggest tree on the block, avoid buying the tree in the first place, become defensive when the kids in the backseat wonder what the heck is going on, and you hide in a closet crying (unless you are trying to take a pause)—you may be a perfectionist.
When you try to see a situation through another person’s eyes, you can combat these “should” statements. Think about what it is like for your kids in the backseat. They just want a tree that they can decorate with crayons and forks and their ninjas. Stop comparing yourself to others. Everyone is too stressed about their own trees. Focus on the bright spots. The kids are being quiet and the sun is finally shining and you have finally sat down for once. Be self-compassionate. You are trying to bring joy and surprise to others and to yourself. Think in terms of your Why. Why are you doing all this? Who cares if it isn’t done perfectly? Stay away from negative influences. Those Instagram photos of trees and dads sledding down glaciers are all fake.
Just five minutes a day expressing gratitude, whether in a journal or in an app, has been shown to increase well-being by more than 10%. Our instincts about what gratitude means work just fine for our purposes. Give thanks for every good thing, every person, every situation that comes to you. Listing five things, one sentence per thing, just once a week has been shown to have some pretty profound effects on our well-being. It can increase optimism and deepen happiness and sleep. Here are some other ways to express gratitude:
List five things for which you feel grateful right now: the sunshine, the trees, your closet, etc. Find an object to carry around with you that will remind you to be grateful. Some use quotes on their phones, others carry around boulders if they exercise like Spartans. Find what works as a consistent reminder to be grateful. Use gratitude prompts: I’m grateful for five things I hear, for five friends, for five books, etc. Combine a ten-minute walk with feeling gratitude as a focal lens. The hardness of the sidewalk. The color of the grass. The falling leaves. Write a gratitude letter. About whom are you most grateful? Write down everything about them that makes your life better and deliver that letter to them in person.
How are your stress levels right now? Do you have unreasonable expectations for yourself? For what are you grateful? Above all, remember to focus on what really counts. Joy and togetherness.