As a boy growing up in Chicago, if there were one thing my family wasn’t during holiday time—that would be “resilient.” Looking back, it seemed like all the little annoyances got magnified—whether it was finding gifts, preparing the turkey, or getting dressed up for dinner at the relative’s house. Tempers ran high, and patience ran low. I adopted this attitude for years. While shopping for holiday gifts, I became hyper-vigilant when darting toward my purchase like a hungry tiger hunting for prey. My blood pressure skyrocketed whenever I thought someone was going for my parking space. And I must admit that one time while living in Los Angeles, I engaged in a stand-off with another car as both of us blocked the other’s entry to a parking space for fifteen minutes. I finally left because I was late for an appointment.
Am I proud of these behaviors? Absolutely not.
But I could have easily pleaded “not guilty” to such behavior because, according to American Psychological Association’s recent survey of Stress in America™, 67% of all persons experience a physical or psychological symptom of stress on a daily basis. A study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine showed there was a long-term risk to developing clinically diagnosable anxiety or depression when one doesn’t cope well with minor daily hassles—just like the kind we face during the holidays. Years later, I’ve radically shifted my view of the holidays. Now, my mantra is: Give me the long lines; Give me the bumper-to-bumper parking lot at the mall; Give me the person shoving to get in line.
What is the cause of my extreme change of heart—Prozac? Chocolate? Lobotomy?
What really changed my perspective was mindfulness. Mindfulness dramatically shifted how I experienced the holidays—or any day. It helped me distance myself from habitual and toxic reactions. That’s because it’s not stress that harms us, but our reaction to stress. In other words, mindfulness helped me regulate my emotional thermostat and respond in a fresh way. Here are three tips for using mindfulness to stay calm and tap into resilience this holiday season.
1) Reboot Your Brain with a Belly Breath. Did you know that when you get emotionally triggered, reactive, or defensive, the part of your brain that thinks and makes decisions actually goes offline? It’s like losing your Internet connection or phone signal—and there’s no useful communication going on at that point. Breathing correctly for just one minute can repair that.
Here’s how: First, assume an erect but relaxed posture. Visualize your belly or abdominal area like a balloon. Inhale, picturing the balloon expanding. Exhale slowly, letting the breath go out for a count of three or four. You don’t have to count it, but just feel the slow release of air. Three of these breaths can bring your thinking brain back online. If the stomach area is not moving, bring your arms behind your back and clasp your hands together. This opens the rib cage to make belly breathing easier.
2) Overcome Impatience by Honoring the “In-Between.” Impatience is wanting to get somewhere right now. It’s a future orientation that discounts the present moment. Whether it’s an appointment, getting to work, finishing that paper or project, getting the grade, etc., arriving at your destination is like the punctuation point, or period, marking the end of the sentence. Yes, you’ve reached the goal—but that is a small part of your experience. With a more mindful perspective, you add context and color to the complete and rich story of your entire journey.
Here’s how: Begin by identifying your in-between time, such as any time you move toward a goal. This could be walking to get the mail; shopping in a store before checking out; driving on the freeway going to and from work; when the commercial plays on the TV or radio. Secondly, make a note of how you feel when you’re in-between. Remind yourself to be curious and flexible. If you find something unusual along the way, give yourself permission to explore and experience it. Thirdly, honor your in-between time by appreciating it or connecting with others. Smell the roses along the way, so to speak, by noticing even one pleasant color, object, or sound in your in-between travels—even if you’re moving along the hallway in your home. Live your “in-between” more fully, and you will feel more alive and less bothered by impatience.
3) Relax Your Body to Relax Your Mind. Did you know that facial expressions change how you think? As published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, researchers found that a single Botox treatment to freeze the frowning muscles in the faces of depressed individuals significantly reduced depressive symptoms. Researchers hypothesized the subjects had difficulty conceptualizing sadness, depression, and anger because they couldn’t make the facial expressions that when with the thought. And so, if you want to change stressed out thinking during the holidays, start by relaxing your body.
Here’s how: First, notice your posture—particularly when you feel negative, stressed, or anxious. Does your body tighten up? Where? Do you tend to look up, down, or away from others? Assume a more relaxed and open posture. Make sure your arms, hands, and jaw are relaxed and not clenched or tight. Avoid crossing your arms over your chest, which makes it harder to take a calming breath. Secondly, experiment with smiling. Smile for thirty seconds and see how this changes how you feel and maybe even think. Smile as you walk through the store. (Others smile back.) Finally, try taking a relaxed and happy walk instead of a stressed out one. Experiment with a confident posture or a loving and compassionate facial expression.
Try these strategies this holiday season. Don’t be surprised if family, friends and neighbors ask you the secret to why you’re so chill. My advice?
Just take a breath and smile.
Donald Altman, M.A., LPC, is a psychotherapist, former Buddhist monk, and award-winning author. A past Vice-President of The Center for Mindful Eating, he conducts mindful living and mindful eating workshops and retreats internationally and has trained thousands of mental health therapists how to use mindfulness for managing depression, anxiety, pain, and stress. His newest book is 101 Mindful Ways to Build Resilience: Cultivate Calm, Clarity, Optimism and Happiness www.MindfulPractices.com