*This is an article from the Winter 2021-2022 issue of Contentment Magazine.
By Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD
The seasons are changing, days are getting shorter, and the holiday season is upon us. While festivities, food, lights, and laughter can make it the most wonderful time of the year, it also isn’t necessarily a stress-free time. Even before COVID-19 entered our lives, the holiday season typically brought an uptick in stress. In fact, a 2019 Lending Tree survey found that a whopping 61% of Americans dread the holidays.1 Sources of holiday stress can come from the pressure to spend, travel, family drama, taking time off work, expectations tied to traditions, and the feeling of being spread too thin. Furthermore, in the wake of COVID-19, the holiday season will again continue to look different for us this year; things like traveling and gathering in large groups now add yet another layer to our lives during this already stressful time.
Before the stress of the holidays sneaks up on you, I want to provide you with a powerful tool to help you to enjoy a low stress holiday season: mindfulness. In essence, mindfulness involves turning your attention to the present moment to be more fully present and aware of where you are and what you’re doing. We all have had those moments where we are physically present, but our mind is somewhere else. You may be surprised to learn that according to research conducted by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, we spend only about half our time (46.9%) in the present moment.2 That’s right — we are mentally checked out for half the time we’re spending on work or engaging in daily life! But is this bad for us? Studies have confirmed that, in general, a wandering mind is associated with a negative mood.3
While learning to be more present in this day and age, let alone the holidays, may sound like a daunting task, the good news is that there are quick and easy ways to weave it into your day-to-day life. That’s right, mindfulness practices do not require sitting in a lotus position with your eyes closed; rather, no matter what we are doing — whether you’re playing with your children, eating at a family gathering, traveling, or running a holiday errand — you can practice mindfulness. Here are three ways to get you started on practicing mindfulness during the holidays to combat stress:
It’s no secret that we tend to overeat during the holidays. As we rush through the season, we are often so consumed with all that the holiday meal involves, from planning through preparation, to décor and table settings, that it’s easy to be so busy that we miss all that is happening at our tables. By being fully present our meals can even restore us. From the tastes, colors and smells of each bite, to the warmth and chatter of the people around us, being mindful can bring a sense of calm as well. Learning to eat with an awareness of our food, it’s appearance and fragrance, the tastes and flavors will keep us focused and much less likely to overeat as well. An easy way to begin this practice is to simply create a new ‘ritual’ of sorts before each meal that anchors you back to being fully present. Some examples include taking just one minute to allow a person at the table to quickly share one thing they’re grateful for, creating a fun challenge to find your favorite flavor, or even a 30 second pause to simply take a collective deep breath before diving in.
Mindful conversation is important not only during the holidays. Whether at work or at home, the opportunities for deeper connection present themselves, and after all, isn’t that what the season and life is all about? While sharing holiday cheer or reconnecting with family members we’ve missed, it’s easy to just jump in without really listening, as we wait for the opportunity to interrupt and share our ideas. Powerful communication is enabled when both parties feel supported, appreciated, and truly heard. In becoming fully present throughout the conversation, co-workers, friends, and family receive the attention and support they (and you) deserve while also embracing the calm that comes along with bringing our wandering minds back to the present. Listening with intention — even for just a few minutes — is a powerful skill that can create a significant impact as we master and share focus, awareness, and attention.
Driving and commuting is typically associated with stress and annoyance, but it doesn’t always have to be. Next time you are stuck in traffic, think of this down time as providing you with an opportunity for deep breathing and being in the present moment. As you circle your mind back to the present by placing your awareness on your breath, it can make a significant difference in helping you to focus and relax. Driving with quarreling children is no walk in the park either, but it’s a great opportunity to work on learning to accept the moments of our lives for what they are. Best of all, as you renew your calm and restore a sense of peace, it may even resonate with your passengers in the back seat as well.
Although the holiday season might seem like a source of unavoidable stress; approaching the holidays with mindfulness can lead to unexpected calm if we can realize that being in the present moment is an important piece in fully savoring this unique time of year.
- “61% Of Americans Are Dreading The Holidays Due To Financial Strain, Lendingtree Survey Finds”. Com, 2019, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/61-of-americans-are-dreading-the-holidays-due-to-financial-strain-lendingtree-survey-finds-300968469.html.
- Steve Bradt, “Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind” Harvard Gazette, November 11, 2010, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/
- A. Killingsworth and D. T. Gilbert, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.” Science 330(6006):932 (2010), https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21071660/.