The holiday season is upon us and it can be such an intrinsically stressful time of year for so many people. But if we are mindful and aware, we can make it less stressful and more meaningful. I often think about how, if it weren't for the holiday rush that so many find themselves caught up in, December would be a quiet and restful month. As seasonal cycles go, it's a time of rest and darkness, and if we are in tune with those cycles, we can use this time of the year to slow down, look within, and breathe.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is the kidney/water element season. The energy of the kidneys includes the adrenals, which, of course, release stress hormones. Ideally, this is the season where we slow down and turn our energy within, but that doesn't always happen. The extra holiday stress that we subject ourselves to can really weaken our adrenals, not to mention do a number on our immune system, so this is a great excuse to tell ourselves to slow down and prioritize wellness, rather than run ourselves ragged.
I'm going to discuss a few simple things you can do to lessen the stress and get more out of this season of darkness and quietness and avoid being overwhelmed by the holiday crush. Don't underestimate the power of self-care. I know that it's often easier to just crash in front of the tv or tell ourselves that we don't have time, but realistically, we can make it happen if we rearrange our priorities and voice our needs to our families. Don't put your needs last (I'm especially talking to you moms out there!). Doing one or more of these things can go a really long way toward preserving holiday sanity and well being.
After getting a wake-up call in the form of a head cold after a period of stress, lack of sleep, travel, and overindulgence, I was forced to slow down and respect my body. Hopefully, you can avoid the same by slowing down and paying attention. Here are some simple and doable strategies to stay well and sane over the holidays:
#1: Give your mind a break.
I know, I know. Meditation isn't the easiest thing for a lot of us. But I think that there are ways to make it easier. And, as we are our brainwave activity, it's so worth it to take a little time out and give our brain a break. One of those ways is Calm.com. This nifty little website has mesmerizing music and visuals that you can just listen to, stare at, and zone out to, or you can choose the guided relaxation setting, which is really helpful for those of us who hold tension in our bodies. You can set the timer for as little as two minutes, or as much as 20 minutes, so there's no excuse not to take a little break. There's even an iphone app!
#2: Deep breathing.
This is one that most of us ignore, yet our breathing patterns directly influence central nervous system functioning and breathing can make all the difference as to whether you're cranking out stress hormones or in parasympathetic rest-and-digest mode. Speaking of rest-and-digest, taking a moment to do 10-20 deep belly breaths before every meal can make a world of difference in how we digest our food. Plus, it primes us to slow down at meal times and eat our food more mindfully. Here's my favorite video for learning how to breathe in a way that will switch on our rest-and-digest mode. It's also extremely beneficial to start and end your day with a few minutes of deep breathing. Get some oxygen to that brain!
#3: Practice hygge.
What the heck is hygge? Hygge (pronounced "hyoogeh") is a Danish term that loosely translates to "coziness." The concept of hygge is all about cultivating warmth, coziness, closeness, and quality of life to offset the darkness of winter (though you can create hygge all year round). Hygge encompasses things such as a small gathering of good friends, lighting some candles to offset the gloom, curling up with a cup of tea and a good book and spending a little quality cozy time with yourself, or cooking a nice meal and setting a pretty table just for the heck of it. Winter is the perfect time to practice hygge, to boost our moods and improve our quality of life.
How do I practice hygge? I've been lighting candles on dreary days (a luxury I used to neglect), putting on music while I cook, taking baths with essential oils like fir and grapefruit that boost my mood, making cups of fragrant herbal tea, having an occasional glass of wine with dinner, and avoiding things like the news and negative people that bring me down. Even looking at beautiful art or pictures of nature helps. I also plan on spending more low-key time with good friends. All of these things give my mood and heart a boost.
#5: Therapeutic baths.
I think baths are one of the most underrated forms of self care. It's so easy to neglect them because they take time and effort, but on the other hand, the very time and effort it takes to draw and take a bath is a way of affirming that you're worth it (we all need to affirm that from time to time!). There's something intrinsically calming about being submerged in warm, soothing water and I'm convinced it induces beneficial brainwave changes.
You can get the most out of a therapeutic bath by adding inexpensive epsom salts (I like to add a whole bunch), which delivers beneficial magnesium transdermally, or you could also use magnesium chloride flakes to really pack a magnesium punch. Essential oils are wonderful for calming and/or boosting mood- here is a list of essential oils for stress relief. If chlorine is a concern when bathing (it is for me), there are inexpensive bath filters like this one.
#6: Practice gratitude.
I know that this one is kind of cliché, but, seriously, it's not just some hippy-dippy concept. This one is rooted in neuroscience and neuropsychology. Our brain has a natural negative bias, which I like to think of as the backdrop against which we experience life. Negative events register more deeply in our brain than positive ones do, so it's helpful to take time to remember and think about things that are good. And when something good is happening, take 30 seconds to really be present, feel it, and let it sink in. The more we do this, the more we begin to form new neural networks that shift our brain's bias more toward the positive. When this happens, the backdrop begins to change and the lens through which we filter our experiences also changes and we become more naturally positive.
#7: Stress support supplements.
Sometimes stress is just unavoidable, but at least there are supplements that can take the edge off or change how we handle stress. This can make a world of difference! My favorite anti-stress supplements are L-Theanine, Rhodiola, and Stresscare. A formula that works well for me that I discovered by accident when it didn't help with sleep but gave me a definite daytime mood boost and calming effect is Dragon Herbs Lights Out. Some people may also benefit from Rescue Remedy, which can be handy to keep in your purse or pocket.
I hope these suggestions will take the edge off of the holiday stress and I wish you all a peaceful and meaningful holiday season.