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Ask the Expert: How to Find Joy in Your Holidays and Learn to Stress Less

Ask the Expert: How to Find Joy in Your Holidays and Learn to Stress Less

Ask the Expert: How to Find Joy in Your Holidays and Learn to Stress Less

Holiday markets, twinkling lights, lively shows, festive music, bustling stores, beautiful decorations, and so many lists! December has officially arrived with its usual mix of promise and pressure. As the holidays approach this year, we may be finding sources of stress that feel both familiar and overwhelming in the context of the ongoing challenges of COVID. The past 21 months of living with a new reality brought on by COVID have brought many new sources of stress into our lives.

Although everyone has been impacted in some way, those who have lost loved ones and jobs, along with those who have been working on the front lines, bear a unique burden of stress and grief. With worries about holiday spread and new variants, balanced by optimism with vaccines for children, boosters for adults, and new medications in the pipeline, it can feel like we are on a roller coaster-without much insight into what’s around the next turn. This uncertainty itself is a stressor, since our minds thrive on having some sense of order and predictability-even for the most spontaneous among us. A return to “normalcy” after missing the celebrations from 2020 may feel welcome, yet somewhat dissonant.

The American Psychological Association (known as APA), does a survey every year called “Stress in America.” It provides valuable information about the sources and impact of stress for Americans. It is probably no surprise that stress levels in 2021 are high, and many are finding it harder to cope. Alcohol use is up, daily tasks pose a bigger burden, and decision-making is more challenging. More people are seeking out mental health services and support, which is helpful for anyone who finds themselves worrying more, enjoying things less, or having difficulty with motivation and energy.

Let’s talk for a moment about stress-which is an inevitable part of life. While it has gotten a bad rap, it’s helpful to remember that it can be beneficial in small doses. It gets us moving, keeps us focused, and shows us what’s truly important. Surviving despite difficult circumstances can foster resiliency and what we call “post-traumatic growth.” When it goes on for long periods, though, stress can cause problems, depleting our mental, physical and emotional resources. Thankfully, research has shown us there is much we can do to find more balance and ease during stressful times. We thrive when we build a life that enhances our well-being, learn strategies for dealing with daily stressors, and find the skills and support to help us cope with life’s big challenges. Here are some skills to help you develop a greater sense of well-being during the holidays and beyond.

Stress-Less Skill #1: Know Thyself

How do YOU respond to stress? Take a moment to think back on your own experiences of stress. Do you speed up or slow down? Get energized or overwhelmed? Feeling focused or distracted? Seek out help or turn inward? Knowing your patterns can be important to both recognize when you’re in a time of stress and identify which responses are helpful and which you might need to change.

Stress-Less Skill #2: Nourish your Body

Get back to basics when it comes to self-care. We know that our bodies are our “first-responders” when it comes to managing stress. The “fight or flight” response kicks almost all of our systems into “go mode,” whether or not we are aware of all those changes. In the short term, we are using more of our body’s resources. Over time, this can make us more vulnerable to a range of illnesses and conditions. We can proactively intervene by getting enough sleep (7-8 hours is essential for brain health), eating a healthy diet (high in whole foods that are critical for nourishing and supporting the body), and getting regular exercise (150 minutes per week is beneficial for almost every aspect of physical and mental health). I am sure these sound familiar, and that Dr. West has highlighted how important these core habits are for your health and vitality!

Stress-Less Skill #3: Focus on Presence, rather than Presents

Find ways to be mindfully present. By now, most of us have heard about the array of benefits that a mindfulness practice offers: greater focus, improved emotion regulation, less stress reactivity, increased compassion, and the list goes on. I first saw the profound impact of mindful awareness on the body nearly 30 years ago when I began teaching patients in a group to use biofeedback to relax their bodies and quiet their nervous systems. In my practice today, I still help my clients to find some activity that promotes mindfulness as a way to observe thought patterns and explore body sensations. I encourage everyone to find what works for them, recognizing that for some that means breath-based guided exercises, while others gravitate to more movement-based practices like yoga or tai chi, which connect mind, body, and breath through movement. Whether or not you have a regular mindfulness practice, you can choose to be present when you take time to slow down, breathe deeply, focus on the moment-what’s happening around you and what’s going on inside, too.

Stress-Less Skill #4: Cultivate Gratitude

Find at least one thing daily that you truly appreciate. To be honest, I understand that gratitude journals and developing a “gratitude practice” can feel superficial. When demands are growing and time is shrinking, it can seem like a luxury or worse, a band-aid. I get it, but hear me out. First, we have good research to show that gratitude can help to boost mood and contribute to well-being. Second, we know that our minds naturally create filters that selectively focus on what feels “important.” In fact, negative information sticks with us, while positive experiences often slip away. Actively focusing on gratitude helps us to shine a spotlight on the good things in our lives. Which brings us to the third benefit: when we are struggling, finding the good in people and experiences can help us to sit with the basic truth that joy and pain often co-exist. This paradox that life is often bittersweet is essential in getting us through difficult times. It is captured well in this Steele Magnolias quote by Dolly Parton’s colorful and optimistic character Truvy: “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” The holidays can feel like a challenge in this regard, expectations may be high but unrealistic, memories can be both happy and heart-breaking. Life is richer when we develop the capacity to find good things in hard times, and recognize that one does not negate the other.

Stress-Less Skill #5: Create Connections

Caring relationships and giving to others are essential to a meaningful life. When we look beneath the glitz and glamour we often see in media portrayals of the holidays, the heart of the season is connecting and giving back. What that looks like is different for everyone, shaped by family traditions and personal beliefs. Each of us has an opportunity to focus on ways to feel connected and share what we have. For some it may mean grand gestures and for others simple gifts, such as spending time with a loved one or making small donations. Research shows that when it comes to friendships, quality matters more than quantity and our perceptions of support are what confer its health benefits. When you focus on the basics of connecting with others and contributing in ways you believe are important, your sense of satisfaction and well-being improve, which helps to buffer life’s inevitable stresses.

So as we approach the winter solstice and holidays, let’s remember that there is a reason we choose to shine a light in the darkest days of the year, reminding us that even the hardest times can bring beauty and growth. I encourage you to try these skills and use some of your own as you lean into the joys of the season and roll with whatever challenges arise.

If you are currently dealing with any anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issues, Dr. West wants you to know you are not alone. We cannot stress enough how important it is to chat with your physician, psychologist, or therapist about what you’re going through — help is available. Comprehensive care at Eileen West, MD and Associates means we take care of your body and your mind because you are worth it.

Dr. Amy Heard is a clinical psychologist in Vienna, VA who has worked for over 20 years in a variety of medical and women’s health settings. She is a strong believer in collaborative care and continues to work in multi-disciplinary spaces. She specializes in helping people to cope with medical issues including chronic pain, pelvic pain, migraines, neurological conditions, cancer, sexual dysfunction and fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue. She also works with couples to help them improve their relationships through greater awareness, better communication, and deeper connection. In her practice, she uses cognitive behavioral and mind-body techniques to help her clients be more present, open up to challenges, and build more meaning. Learn more at HDPsychology.com.

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