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Mark Bertin, M.D. Headshot

A Holiday Gift to Yourself

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The holiday season can be a time of great, uncomplicated joy -- honestly it can. It doesn't have to be an intense, draining, consumer-driven mess. We cram into four weeks a stew of stress-raising ingredients for our families, letting it simmer until New Year's Day. But with a little mindfulness and mental effort, we can keep ourselves grounded and together and help our families find a sense of peace in the midst of it all.

We can start by taking an honest look at what we're doing to ourselves these next few weeks. Forewarned is forearmed. A short list of what the season serves us: Too little sleep; too much food; too little sunlight; too much alcohol; strained budgets; challenging gift purchases; hours of schmoozing with people we see once a year at the same party but never in between; too little exercise; too much travel; extreme weather; and various family crises. And our kids live through the season on sugar and poor sleep and lack of exercise, and probably have become certain that the only path to true happiness is to have the hottest new... whatever fits their vision of nirvana.

It's stressful even writing about it. The holiday season, meant to bring us all together in happiness, consistently accomplishes exactly the opposite for so many people. So what's the point? What can we do instead?

Setting Your Holiday Intentions

There is another option. Instead of letting it all just happen, we can remind ourselves what matters most -- and what we'd like our kids to experience. Emphasize, for our own sanity and for that of our children, the simpler side of the holidays. Find time for fun activities outdoors, at home, in the city or wherever else, without settling for the lowest common holiday denominator of overspending and overscheduling.

In spite of the external pressures, we can value taking care of ourselves. Too little sleep amplifies stress; exercise reduces it. Also helpful is eating healthily, not necessarily at the parties themselves but perhaps the rest of the month. Schedule quiet time alone or with someone who calms you or makes you laugh. Find the humor in the midst of the seasonal insanity. Whatever works for you the rest of the year, instead of letting it slide for a month, protect it, a holiday gift for yourself.

Avoid perfectionism. We sometimes amplify the emotional impact of buying gifts or hosting parties by unconsciously holding them to impossible standards, fitting them to the storybook pictures we've created in our minds. Not only do we invite all our family and friends but we expect angelic behavior from our kids, or stay up late meticulously centering the candy noses on cookie reindeer, or maybe actually expect our parents not to bicker this year, although they have fought fairly consistently over the last few decades. "No bloodshed and a few good laughs" may be more than enough for any given event.

Holiday Self-Care

You also can permit yourself some time to mentally quiet down throughout the day. Left unattended, one stressful thought tends to lead to another (or several), and the cycle ramps up all day long. Eventually, life feels like a crisis even on a relatively ordinary December day. Without disrupting your schedule, without adding another "thing to do," take fifteen slow breaths as needed, focusing as best you can only on the physical sensations related to breathing.

Spend this one moment not doing or planning anything. Don't expect a holiday miracle; your mind will remain busy much of the time. We can't completely stop ourselves from thinking, and there's no need to try. But on the train, in the aisle of the toy store, trying to get the children to the dinner table, or whenever you feel yourself ratcheting up, give yourself a break for a few moments.

As suggested in a 2011 New York Times article, one other trick to lowering stress is to make a practice of gratitude. In spite of the millions spent in seasonal marketing to convince us our long term well-being depends entirely on a massive TV set or a diamond necklace, we know better. Instead of buying into the hype, express appreciation at the end of every day for several things that went well. On an off day maybe simply relish the opportunity to put it behind you and go to sleep. Whatever you discover, small or large, write it down or spend a few moments mentally giving thanks.

We can't eliminate all that the season throws our way. We can't do anything about that or the people around us who may be more wound up than usual. But we can acknowledge the inevitable challenges without getting sucked in. Instead of letting the holiday season run amiss, we can find the opportunity to celebrate and connect with friends and family and create for ourselves and those around us healthier, more relaxing and restorative times.

So really, go for it: Happy Holidays!