UCHealth: Coping during the holidays
Gatherings with family and friends. Holiday parties. Presents under the tree. Happy times.
But what if the holidays don’t invoke feelings of merriment and excitement?
“For many people, the holidays can be hard because they shine a spotlight on difficult situations, painful losses or other challenges,” said Alison Hobson, a licensed clinical social worker at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “But, a few simple practices in our daily lives can help us cope with the added stress or pressure the holidays may bring.”
Take time to relax your body
When anxiety and stress start to build, start with relaxing the body. This can be done by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
“This is the part of our body that helps us ‘rest and digest, mend and befriend,’” said Hobson. “It helps us feel a sense of relaxation, wellbeing and calmness.”
To activate the parasympathetic nervous system, breathe in for a count of five and then increase your exhale to a count of six. Do this for several breaths. Intentionally relax your shoulders, neck, jaw and face.
“After a minute, you can notice a sense of space between thoughts, a stillness that is there,” said Hobson. “Taking moments of relaxation throughout your day is always available for you.”
There are multiple free mindfulness and relaxation apps that can help with relaxing the body, too.
Let the positive stick, not slide
The brain is hardwired to notice what is a threat or what feels wrong – it’s how humans have evolved in order to survive in the face of danger.
According to Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist who Hobson has studied, the mind is like Velcro for negative experiences, while the positive experiences often slide off like Teflon.
To overcome this negativity bias, Hanson encourages people to “take in the good.”
To do so, take one good thing – this can be an intentional gratitude practice that you do each night before bed or just moments of awareness, like the smell of a fresh orange, the sight of freshly fallen snow or a call from a friend or family member. Savor it for 20-30 seconds. Take a breath and feel the sensation of savoring that experience. Over time, the practice of taking in the good will help the brain rewire to notice more positives.
Don’t “should” on yourself or others
Instead of thinking of all the things you “should” do, focus on the things that bring you a sense of connection or wellbeing. Try for activities that create feelings of calm and connection.
Be generous with your presence
While relentless marketing gets us primed to consume, remember that being present is the best present you can give friends and family.
“After safety, the primary need we have is for true connection,” said Hobson. “Connecting with people and really listening to them is priceless.”
Other free presents you can give include compassion, forgiveness and gratitude.
Kristen Neff, a pioneer in the study of self-compassion, is another expert Hobson references in her work.
“She tells us that self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain with a stiff upper lip mentality,” said Hobson. “Being imperfect, failing and experiencing life’s difficulties is inevitable, which is why we need to be gentle with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences.”
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