Q: How can I manage stress over the holidays?
- Kelley, engineer, NYC
A: The holidays are not only replete with current stressors, but they are also a trigger for stressors of the past. You might associate stringing lights from the tree with an activity you used to do with your parents or associate distinct smells of chestnut with a time you're nostalgic for. Our memories have clever ways of transporting us back to various stages in our lives based on timestamps, such as the holidays, or via smells, music, and other visceral triggers. But, it's up to you to not let painful or even nostalgic triggers weigh you down, especially when you've already got your load of holiday activities to tackle.
Studies show that just being aware that a psychological phenomenon exists makes you more cognizant throughout your life. Try to be aware of ways to improve your mental health this holiday season. In order to successfully complete all you need for a happy and healthy winter, you must take care of yourself. For some, meditation may help to alleviate stress. In a meta-analysis of the link between meditation and behavior, researchers found that after just meditating for five days, participants showed enhanced attention, self-regulation, and lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue on the Profile of Mood States scale. And if that isn't motivation enough, these participants were compared to a control group given relaxation training, and the mediators still came out ahead. All of these benefits in health significantly decrease cortisol, the stress related hormone, while increasing your immune system. I've found that you don't need anything but yourself to try meditating. You can do it the old-fashioned way and take a yoga class or you can meditate in whatever way feels comfortable for you. Take three minutes in a comfortable setting in silence, quiet your inner critic, close your eyes, and listen to your breathing. I've learned that there really isn't a transcendental secret - it's just about being alone and disconnecting.
In order to manage stress you must also re-structure any negative thoughts that are weighing you down. The power we have over our own cognitions is astonishing. Our minds gravitate toward common distortions - for example, a popular distortion is "all or nothing thinking," which is "If I don't get all of my holiday shopping done this week then I am a complete failure." You can re-structure negative thoughts to hone in on the positive. You can kill your annoying inner-critic by restructuring that thought to read "I'm going to try my best to get all of my holiday shopping done this week and I'll be happy with whatever the outcome is." Researchers say that meditation is a great way to begin perfecting your cognitive re-structuring, since it's the first step in quieting your inner critic, and paying attention to your thoughts and surroundings. There are several other cognitive distortions to be wary of, such as magnifying negative qualities in yourself and minimizing the positive. No matter the distortion, the trick is to always cognitively re-structure those thoughts in a positive light. It takes mental work. First, you must be aware that you're being negative and secondly, you must have the will power to re-structure. It might take practice, but over time this is an integral practice to maintaining happiness and sanity.
Lastly, an often forgotten practice for maintaining happiness over the holidays: have self-compassion. You will have several people to care about, but you can't give what you need unless you are being kind to yourself as well. So, this holiday season don't let stress or inner critics bog you down; take a deep breath and know that the power is in your thoughts.