The holiday season is kicking off.
When you hear that – do you secretly long to head for the hills, not to return to society until Jan.5th?
I know how your feel.
The holidays are frequently cited (especially by women) as one of the most stressful times of the year and it's no big surprise - the extra events, school functions, and "greeting card expectations" can take a toll on our body, mind, and spirit.
I used to totally stress over the holiday seasons and gatherings. I tried avoidance, distraction, and feigned sicknesses - none of which worked.
Heck I even ran off and joined the circus, which gave me several years full of holiday gigs to be worked and severely cut back on my obligations - which I saw as a major perk.....
Flash forward to this year though and I am facing the holidays cool as a cucumber, ready for (a few) jingle bell inspired happy dances!
I created a system to stress less and enjoy more during the holidays using my years of experience as a stress management and fitness coach, and I wanted to share with you how I am doing it.
My goal is to give you an easy to follow strategy to create the holiday season of your dreams, follow your wellness goals, and start the new year feeling rejuvenated and refreshed instead of exhausted and depleted.
I put together a FREE checklist so you can easily follow the strategy all season long. You can get that here.
Ready? Got your guide? Let's get started!!!
Phase 1: Foundations
So the first phase is really the most important phase in the strategy.
Promise me you won't skip this okay?
Follow these steps before you even think about heading out to your first holiday gathering, and definitely before your first holiday based day off from work (I’m talking to you 3rd Thursday in November).
Sit down with your printed copy of the checklist or a pen and paper and get ready to set some clear intentions for the holiday of your dreams.
What are the values you wish to promote and maintain this holiday season?
Is it altruism, gratitude, volunteering, renewal? What do you think makes the holidays special and important?
- Write out three values that you want to embody this holiday season.
- Write the top 5 emotions you regularly feel during the holidays.
- Top 5 emotions you want to feel this holiday season.
- Top 3 emotions you don't want to feel during the holidays.
- Decide and commit that you will feel ALL the emotions you might feel during the holidays without judging or shaming yourself.
Guess what? ALL emotions are good emotions.
To be emotionally healthy we need to feel all the feels.
A lot of the stress that is associated with the holidays comes about by folks trying to suppress emotions that they don't think they should feel or don't want to feel.
What I want you to do this year is to actually focus on becoming aware and mindful of how you are feeling, without trying to judge it or change it. It is okay to hope to feel a particular way, but we can't get attached to the outcome.
It is also okay to embrace sadness or loss during the holidays. The holidays can bring up precious memories of gatherings and loved ones long-gone, or awareness that perhaps this will be the last year we get to spend the holidays with a loved one.
Or they can be a reminder that perhaps we aren’t exactly where we thought we would be in our life at this time, or we can spend our time comparing ourselves to others with their seemingly picture perfect lives.
All of these things are okay. They are all good. You can actually use this as a time to allow space for healing and growing and let yourself experience those things that you truly need to feel.
If you stuff everything deep inside like an 80's teenager trying to get on a pair of super tight Jordache jeans, you might get it all zipped up - but it is probably gonna hurt, give you a stomach ache, and make the party suck.
Trust me, I know what I am talking about here. My mom has advanced dementia and doesn’t recognize me most of the time. Christmas used to be her favorite holiday, so it would absurd for me to think that I’m not going to be sad this year. Instead I’m focusing on honoring my love for her and celebrating her Christmas spirit, and if I end up in tears that is absolutely okay. I've already realized and warned my husband and daughter that I am going to be sad at times during the holidays, vocalizing this is so much more effective than trying to change it.
- What things are the most important to you? Read over your values and even your desired feelings to determine what your holiday priorities are going to be. (Family time, your workouts, your nutrition, regular sleep, speaking out against injustice, volunteering, etc.)
- Pick 2 to 3 self-care priorities that are going to be non-negotiable (workout schedule, avoiding foods that inflame, regular sleep schedules, quiet time, massages, etc.
- Pick 2 external value priorities that you are going to commit to honoring (think speaking out against injustice - even at a family gathering - volunteering, donating, religious functions, etc.)
- What activities and events are sacred to you? Pick 3 to 5 (one of mine is the taking my daughter to see the Nutcracker. As a former professional dancer I've performed in well over 250 Nutcrackers in my life - and my last one was when I was 25! It is a must-do to go with my child and helps me connect with memories of my mom, who of course took me to my first Nutcracker oh so long ago).
- What activities are sacred to your closest beloveds that you would like to share with them? Pick 1 or 2
- Write your self-care essentials into your calendar (yep this goes first!) even if some of them are automated (like your weekly Pilates class) put them in during the holidays. You might realize you'll be missing some of them for travel, or that they fall on a holiday itself - this way you can re-schedule now and not miss something you need).
- Get your sacred rituals and events into your calendar.
- Get your beloveds' special events in your calendar.
- Plan how you will maintain your commitment to external values. Schedule time to volunteer or write out a script in advance of what you will say if someone at a gathering is offensive, racist, or sexist. Remember, these values are important to you so don't leave them to chance.
- Now review all invites and events as they come up. Review them to make sure they don't conflict with something sacred, and that they will help you honor your values and even your desired feelings. Politely decline anything that does not.
- Be flexible and honest. When those scheduling oversights come up and you have to sacrifice something, remember your values and make decisions accordingly.
Lack of time is one of the biggest stressors during the holiday season, so it is imperative that you truly only commit to events that you want to commit to! Otherwise, you can get stretched too thin to enjoy anything fully, and often your self-care will be the thing you skip.
Good job! You have passed on all gatherings that weren’t in alignment with your holiday vision (or at least most of them right?). And you have your plan on how to honor your priorities and values – let the holidays commence!
Now we are moving into phase 2 – where you'll learn all the essentials to thrive and not just survive.
Phase 2: Essentials
First, you have to understand that even when you are totally looking forward to something, you can still experience stress from it.
Good stress (eustress) causes a similar physiological reaction in the body as bad stress (distress), and that can put us in a hyper-aroused state where our bodies and minds are on high alert – searching for harm in every conversation, comment, or moment.
This can lead us to react to situations with less than the compassionate kindness we might desire, ditch our carefully crafted plans, binge on the gluten, and leave us running out the door in tears after yelling at our xenophobic cousin.
So you need to get proactive, and follow this thriving strategy for the day of any holiday event.
These tips will help you have less intense stress reactions and recover from them more quickly and calmly when they do happen.
Let's Get Physical:
Exercise provides a buffer against heightened fight or flight reactions, gives you some endorphins, and helps you return to a relaxed state more quickly if you do find yourself stressing out.
You’ll get the most protection from your exercise if you exercise a few hours before your event, but you’ll even get some benefits as long as you have exercised within 24 hours prior.
Choose something that you enjoy that gets your heart rate up, or has mindful strength training (or both). Even a few minutes of exercise can make a huge difference in your ability to cope with and even enjoy stressors.
At the end of your workout, if you have time, spend 2 minutes lying on your back with your feet up the wall. This yummy yoga pose helps to calm the nervous system and provides deep relaxation, perfect before heading out to a holiday gathering.
Workout for at least 15 minutes sometime during the day before a holiday event. Get your blood moving to keep it from boiling later.
Breathe Baby Breathe:
When you get to your destination take a few minutes to stop and breathe before rushing in the door. Practice deep, abdominal breaths for 1 – 2 minutes to help you center and ground so you can be present and clear when you arrive. State your intention for the gathering.
If you need help with this I have a calming breath guided audio that is perfect for the holidays you can download here.
Make Mindfulness Your Present:
Be mindful and present with yourself, your drinking, your eating, and your loved ones.
While at the event use your mindfulness skills to truly experience the time with your friends or family. Keep your phone in your pocket and give yourself and your fellow guests the gift of your attention and presence.
Mindfulness can help to soothe any discomfort that may arise, help you artfully manage that uncomfortable conversation, and leave you better able to pass on the third slice of pie that you know will make you feel ill, so it’s an all-around win-win.
And while we are discussing presents, economic worries and stressors are a huge burden for many folks during the holidays. There are plenty of ways you can show your appreciation that don't involve a lot of money, and won't burden anyone with excess stuff. Get creative with gift giving, choosing time over money whenever you can!
Eat For Success:
Remember that your body’s reactions to foods will intensify and be intensified by stress and excitement.
So if you know that sugar and gluten often leave you inflamed and congested, the odds are that those effects will be heightened during the holiday season.
Make sure to have some yummy treats that meet your nutritional needs at home (or bring a batch with you to share). I made a batch of almond flour pumpkin muffins with stevia sweetened chocolate chips the other day. This way I don’t feel so deprived by saying no to the chocolate cake, as I know I have something I can eat that will be satisfying and won’t make me feel ill the next day.
Also, keep in mind the stress hormones, particularly cortisol - which gets elevated during chronic stress, literally sends our brain on a quest to find and replace sugars and fats.
Eating sugar can actually temporarily halt the fight-or-flight response (which is part of the reason stress eating is a thing). But the calming effect of sugar wears off quickly, often leaving us running back to find more.
Practice mindful eating. Truly notice and savor each bite, focusing on the smells, textures, and complexity of the tastes of the food. This will leave you feeling more satisfied, without overeating.
Your SOS Survival Strategy:
If you get into a bind and feel yourself truly about to explode - breathe and get grateful.
Start your deep breathing practice (no one needs to know), and literally start listing things you are truly grateful for. Try to think of things that are meaningful and significant (being grateful for helpful people in your life is perfect).
In a pinch start with being grateful for clean drinking water. It is essential to life, yet something we often take for granted.
Just the act of searching for gratitude gets into our logical and pleasure focused areas of the brain, not the fight or flight centers. This helps us respond with more integrity and clarity to any stressful event.
So you are ready now to hit the town and make merry. Have fun! And then be sure to check out Phase 3....
Phase 3: Recoup and Revise
Make sure to take extra care of yourself after stressful or exciting event. Especially if you were up late, ate a lot, and got amped about anything.
If you feel inflamed or bloated the next day start the day with a hot cup of water with lemon, and listen to how hard your body needs to workout.
If you’re already inflamed it’s better to do a milder workout (think mellow Pilates, yoga, or walking) to gently get your body moving without increasing the inflammation load.
It’s not advised to skip movement though, as moving will help you metabolize and excrete any excess stress hormones too.
Rolling out is a fabulous option to release tension that might be clinging to your body. So grab a roller or a pinkie ball and get moving!
Give yourself some time to reflect and learn from your experience.
Reflect on your behaviors and actions and congratulate yourself for moments you were connected to yourself and others (which might have been when you took a quick walk outside for some quiet reflection).
If you remember some situations where you didn’t respond in full integrity, ask yourself how you can learn from the situation. This fosters resilience and helps us find learning and purpose from mistakes.
And please - no need to judge or shame yourself (even if you danced on a table or two - we've all been there right?).
Reassess your commitments:
Get out your planner and see if you now feel like you are doing too much or too little and figure out if you need to adjust accordingly.
You also may need to re-examine your intentions and vision for your holiday season.
You are the expert on you – so listen to yourself and do it!
Then get ready to repeat because it’s the holidays and you may have another gathering in a few short hours, days, or weeks!
If you haven't already download your Holiday Thriving Survival Guide and Checklist below!
I would love to know how it's going. Let me know what one of your self-care priorities will be this holiday season, you can hold yourself accountable and inspire others to take loving care of themselves. (Mine is yoga and Pilates - each once a week - it's non-negotiable). What's yours?
Much love friend!