Holiday Stress and Staying Sane: Tactics, Strategy, Sass, and Flair

Does the holiday season start for you at Halloween or at Thanksgiving? (Or even later, like on December 20th, and only with great reluctance?)  And what, for that matter, does the holiday season mean for you?

For me, holiday season starts at more or less at Halloween because I love the Mexican holiday traditions surrounding el día de los muertos and I start decorating with skeletons at that point and continue in this vein, as you will notice, all the way through Christmas.  (Note to self: a meditation on this holiday will be a great blog post for next year; how, I wonder, did I manage to skip the opportunity this time around?).  Well, anyway… I also really love to cook, so then Thanksgiving later on in the month–whether or not I have turkey or even company–is fun because it’s an excuse to eat lavishly.  No matter what is going on, by November my skeleton decorations are up and bringing happiness to my home, and this, for its part, makes holidays bright for me.

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My Christmas tree: “Shall we dance?”

Christmas is fine, though I confess that I do not unreservedly adore this particular holiday, and I do enjoy New Year’s Eve. But I don’t love the holiday season with every fiber of my being and, if I am honest, I do at times find it stressful and distressing.  In fact, and depending on how I feel, I don’t always want to be around other people during the holidays…a feeling that can change, later, when I find myself alone on a significant day.  Long story short: I, like everyone else, have some ambivalent feelings surrounding the holiday season.

What about you?  Do you find holiday season stressful and exhausting, or do you enjoy the eight weeks or so of celebration that start in early November and culminate on New Year’s Eve?

One thing that I find–no matter if the person loves or hates the holiday season– is that health coaching clients are anxious about making new year’s resolutions and bodywork patients are tenser and tighter. Holidays bring up expectations–yours and mine and everyone else’s–and people are tired by the time Christmas rolls around.  By January 1st, people are worried about their diets and their commitments (or lack thereof) to resolutions designed to conform with “New Year, New You!” articles that are on the front cover of all the magazines and on browser feeds everywhere.  Some people have experienced a repetition of family trauma at the Thanksgiving dinner table.  Others have over-indulged and had way too much fun starting in November, to the extent that they come back to reality, heavier and with gut problems, in January.  No matter which side of the equation you are on, though, this is a blog post for you if you find yourself frizzled, overstimulated, and/or wiped out by the holidays.  Herein, I will outline some tactics–specific things to do–as part of a larger strategy, or game plan, to help you find the most balance, happiness, and peace you can achieve during the holiday season.

It all comes down to grounded, mindful, and compassionate self-care.

You have heard it before, but I’ll say it again: physical self-care is an important aspect of health maintenance.  There is no need to diet during the holidays, nor is there a reason to go to extremes in the other direction.  Eat a bit of things you love–know that you are going to give yourself permission, and that you will enjoy those things–and pick your battles.

For Thanksgiving this year, I was restoring my gut health after having ignored some warning signs for too long.  As a result, my digestion is weak and I can’t eat very much and I can’t stomach variety.  At present, consequently, I eat a lot of oatmeal.  Rather than going to a Thanksgiving celebration and feeling sorry for myself as I watched everyone else eat and drink, I instead went to my favorite escape spot in Austin: the Alamo Drafthouse on S. Lamar.  As you can discover if you read my blog post on the subject, doing so is truly a beloved treat for me.  This year, I had a holiday turkey burger, a beer, and a cookie trio (I ate one cookie and took the other two home for later).  I loved the movie–Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them–and my server had excellent long black fingernails and a heart of gold.  We bonded over deciding which beer I wanted and the minutiae of how I want aioli for my fries but no ketchup, thank you, and how much time I wanted to wait between my burger and the arrival of my cookies.  Lunch was fabulous.  And then I was bloated and miserable and unable to eat anything for two days afterward because my digestion is weak right now.

But I chose my battle and had a great time and it was completely worth it.  I’m also taking walks, making time for the gym, and doing my best to get an afternoon nap whenever possible.  What about you?  It’s important to know  your body’s strengths and weaknesses and to work around them.  Take some time to plan, and decide, consciously, where you are going to indulge and when you are going to opt for health nurturance.  And once you have decided, enjoy yourself and don’t feel guilty.

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El doctor improvisado” (a cautionary tale)

Physical health isn’t the whole picture.  Mental health is a factor too.  One way to practice self-care is to be attentive to your emotional reactions. One discussion I have with health coaching clients relates to the question “Is this mine?”  It’s part of a two-fold question; e.g.: “Is this mine or is this yours?”  The next time you are in a store and the holiday music is playing and there are too many people and maybe you just bought something you couldn’t afford for someone you’re kind of mad at anyway and your blood pressure is starting to rise…stop.  Take a deep breath.  Feel your feet on the ground.  Ask yourself: “Is this mine?”  Are the physical stress feelings related to a real, concrete threat?  Really?  Or are you moderately stressed but–and this is key–you are soaking up the stress of everyone around you too, thereby making yourself feel like you’re about to have a heart attack?  Or if you are having an unpleasant exchange with another person, again: “Is this mine?  Or is it yours?”  Some times the stress is real and it is yours but at this time of year, anxiety can build in the immediate environment and it’s catching.  Do you really want to catch and keep it though?  Take what’s yours–take care of what’s yours–and notice the boundary between yourself and others when you realize what belongs to you and what belongs to them.  Use that knowledge to soothe yourself and to become and to remain centered.

Prepare for stress and heightened emotional sensitivity by planning ahead.  You can practice a visualization, for instance, during which you picture something that makes you feel calm and centered.  Feel it, really feel it, and find that sense of  emotional safe place within your body.  Remember it.  Go there when you’re about to melt down.  Know what’s yours, and manage it accordingly.  (If you would like to read a blog post I wrote about planning ahead for known stressors, go here).

One major issue for a lot of people surrounds the topic of finances and gift-giving.  Is it possible for you to decide how much you’re going to spend and are you able to stick to it and not spend more?  Do you feel guilty if you can’t buy whatever you want?  Or, on the other end of it, is it that you don’t receive the gifts that make you feel loved and nurtured and truly understood so you feel, once again, like a small child who is unloved and unnoticed?  What happens, then?

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On the outside looking in

When I was a kid, we used to go to the Unicef Store and buy international presents that were also part of a charity effort.  Now that I am older, I realize that there wasn’t enough money to buy lavish gifts.  Back then, I thought it was neat to learn about other countries and to buy presents that helped other little kids have better lives.  Can you do something like that?  Maybe buy gifts that are socially conscious (I am partial to Feed, and you can see a review I did of a book written by one of the founders, We the Eaters, here)?  Or, and maybe even better, buy your gifts at local businesses (I’ve reviewed some of my favorites here).  Of course, you can always give the gift of health to yourself and to others by purchasing health coaching or tui na sessions from me (I can give you a gift certificate) or from any number of wonderful health and wellness outfits here in Austin (some of my favorite acupuncturists are here).  If you don’t have money, the gift of time and attention and genuine love is more than enough for those who care for you, don’t you think so?  I do!

Being attentive means more than just noticing emotional reactions.  If you can, try to be aware of what are the causes of those emotional reactions.  Notice messages around you.  Does the all-pervasive message “New Year, New You?” make you happy or frantic when you see it?  Figure out what you feel and do something about it.  Do you really have to be a “new you”?  Maybe you could be you but just a little bit nicer to yourself and a little bit healthier and more stable.  Maybe self-acceptance and a more gentle approach to your self-talk is enough…and that would be the greatest gift of all to yourself this year.  What do you think?

One way to step out of your own way is to look around and see others with compassionate eyes.  This can be a good tactic in the overarching stay-sane strategy this holiday season.  Notice, genuinely notice, others around you.  I’ve seen people walking in my neighborhood with tears rolling down their faces in the past week or so.  Have you noticed anyone openly weeping lately?  One was riding her bike past me and her expression of anguish and her tear-stained face stopped me in my tracks; the other was a weeping teenager who was speaking on the phone to someone as I walked by her.

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Mother and child with dog

Neither were situations that seemed ripe for intervention on my part, but I noticed and I acknowledged them tactfully and I remembered them when I was in clinic and working with patients.  A lot of people don’t know how to get their emotional needs met, or they don’t have a lot of support to begin with and their stress load is crushing.  When I keep in mind that others could use a little compassion, that helps me to feel compassion for my own self too.  Can you try that?

And yet…do not forget to notice yourself in a variety of ways.  Just looking for stressed aspects of your inner landscape is limiting.  What can you find, instead, that is good?  Can you look back over the past year and see changes?  Where have you succeeded?  Where would you like to succeed?  What is your vision for health?  What is your health now?  What stands between you and this ideal?  Where are you now that is solid?  Taking some time to ask yourself these questions can be healing, especially if you start from a position of strength and optimism.  Even if you are in a really hard spot, can you say to yourself things like, “I am struggling now but I took this (or that) step and I am actively trying to change my situation and I’m proud of myself for doing so”?  When I work with health coaching clients who are in despair of ever changing, that is one standard tactic I employ: changing the self-talk and starting from what is good, even if that is only one small thing.  Rome was not built in a day, right?

I missed the boat this year on writing a great blog post about el día de los muertos but there’s always next year.  And, as you see, I’ve shared some of my Christmas tree ornaments that reflect both my love of the skeleton and its beauty and my eternal affinity to Mexican (and Spanish and Sicilian) love of morbid themes and frank acknowledgement of death and human frailty.  Below, on this note, you see another piece of mine that I love; it’s a play on the marker of economic health (“a chicken in every pot“) and the notion of having skeletons in one’s closet (the caption, in translation, reads “A skeleton in every closet”).  We all have them, right?  And those, potentially, are a source of great emotional richness if we treat them well.  At least, I think so.

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No need for a chicken in every pot if there’s a skeleton in every closet

Even though I am now studying Chinese medicine, my background in Hispanic literature and my cultural ties to my Sicilian heritage and to Spain tend to regulate how I see the world.  And yet, more and more, I am finding a hybrid between my old life and the new.  In Chinese medicine, thus, I keep in mind that winter is a time of resting and replenishing and I counsel my patients and clients accordingly (and myself, let’s not forget).  But what of my current surroundings?  What of yours?  In retail, winter is a time for shopping and we all get pulled in by that lure.  As a child, the holiday season meant one thing to you; now, it may or may not be the same, but more than likely those traces remain (to what effect?).  Add to this all your adult responsibilities and all you are called upon to do, to be, and to produce, and the burden can be pretty hefty.  Being present and able to maintain an even keel can be a challenge for many of us.  Self-kindness, kindness for others, a sense of humor, and a clear plan of action are key.  If you care about yourself and are mindful, you can bypass external conditioning and find within yourself a new person–the same you, just healthier and maybe even happier– this holiday season.

What, for you, constitutes grounded, mindful, compassionate self-care?

~~~~~

 2hw.v2

Two Hearts Wellness is a local holistic health and wellness outfit with a passion for all things nourishing, including but not limited to: joyful living, great food, art, and literature, and–of course–traditional Chinese medicine.  If you want to learn more about me, click here and do feel free to follow my blog, connect with me on Facebook, follow me on Instagram, or contact me here to set up an appointment for health coach or personal training services.  If you are interested in Asian bodywork therapy, click here to book an appointment online.

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