By Jan Bruce
Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy season. But you knew that already. The work that you do all year long to build your resilience and battle your stress is doubly important now that the pressure is on. This is when that strong foundation really supports you.
So much gets heaped into the end of the year: parties, shopping, deadlines, school performances, high expectations, emotional triggers and food, so much food. The piles of cookies! The drifts of sweet breads! For certain parts of the country, it's also miserably and record-breakingly cold -- which can be physically and spiritually paralyzing. But that doesn't mean your holiday season is doomed.
Here are a few key ways to flex your resilience and continue to strengthen it so that you can keep yourself physically and mentally whole for the next few weeks.
Check the mind reading at the door.
Your family ought to know you well enough to be able to tell what you're feeling and thinking, right? Well, no. That oh-so-tempting assumption is especially false when you're with extended family whom you love but don't interact with regularly any more. Time with these relatives might trigger old childhood beliefs and struggles that feel enormous and obvious to you but are utterly invisible to everyone else.
Take for instance, this situation, which a friend of mine experienced firsthand: Imagine you were good friends with your cousin when you were teenagers, but you had a falling out when she ditched you more than once for her other friends at a vulnerable and lonely time in your life. So when she decides to go for a walk with your siblings after the Thanksgiving meal, you lose it. All that buried hurt and resentment -- over some little thing that happened so long ago you can't believe it still causes you pain -- comes bubbling up and you fume (or worse) in the kitchen, cutting yourself off from the group, while your cousin and siblings bundle up for a stroll.
You're caught in a mind reading trap. If you piped up and said you'd really like to come along, or took 10 minutes to process your feelings with a trusted friend or family member and then soothed yourself with a cup of tea or some impromptu dancing (whatever works!), you'd avoid a soup tureen of stress.
Catch yourself when you begin to fume at someone who doesn't know what you need, especially if you haven't voiced it. Instead, find a way to ask for what you need, even if it's just a hug, in that moment. There are no prizes for holiday suffering, and you may well free yourself of some ancient hurt in the process.
(Learn more about mind reading and thinking traps.)
Set expectations to a low simmer.
Sometimes the longing for a certain kind of holiday season bleeds into outright expectation: you ought to make a perfect meal. You ought to get the shopping done early. You ought to get along with your family. You ought to have more family!
Lowering expectations doesn't mean settling for an unhappy or stressful experience. When you get real about what you can expect, you say to yourself, these are the honest boundaries of my time, my energy, my budget, my relationships. Within those limits, decide what you want to do or who you want to see mindfully and intentionally. Maybe you choose one or two parties to attend. Maybe you take a walk with your favorite neighbor. Maybe you realize that, yes, you'll be shopping on Dec. 23 and so you'll bring your camera along to take pictures of the human drama of the holidays while you buy that last pair of earrings. When you can do that, the holidays feel different, because you're always where you're supposed to be.
Think sprints, not marathon.
If you find yourself thinking, "I just need to get through this," chances are you're approaching the holidays as a long stretch designed to drain you of joy. The holidays aren't meant to be a boot camp; the emotional core is really more about buoying our spirits during a dark time of year. When it all gets lumped into one miserable slog, you're probably falling into another thinking trap: maximizing and minimizing. This is when you play up all the horrid, draining things that happen and skip over any moments of sweetness or fun.
You've got to hit the brakes in two ways. First, when you feel the slog coming on, stop and write down three good things that have happened in the last day or so. Redirecting your thought for just a minute or two can break the spell and help you tap into new energy. Second, look at the next six weeks as a series of peaks and valleys, or inhalations and exhalations. Where are the busy moments? Where will you need to sprint? And where can you slow down, walk, stop, seek support, soak in the fun stuff? You can't run all the time, and you won't, because you will be perceiving the reality of the situation, that it speeds up and slows down every day.
Making the experience of the holidays different starts with an intention -- the decision to approach it differently. This year, you and your resiliency are at the wheel.
Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.
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