“Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and then the next day is Christmas Eve, and that night is New Year’s and then we have three days off before Valentine’s Day, right?”
So beloved NYC yogini and senior teacher Susan “Lip” Orem (“Lippy”) reminded me and she’s right: that time flies is for certain. How ironic then that minutes, hours, days, ( heck for some of us years and decades) can slip away so easily and almost without notice, yet with unconscious skill (habit?) we find the energy to feel tortured in the face of holiday stressors.
If you experience holiday stress, you’re neither alone nor unjustified. You don’t have to read a study to know there are perfectly good reasons to stress. But what the heck, here’s a top line from one recent study that’s pretty representative of many out there: cited as “multiple stressors” in the American Psychological Association research on holiday stress are lack of time (up to 69%), lack of money (up to 69%), and pressure to give or get gifts (up to 51%). And while you can rationalize that it’s all in your mind, chances are you’re really feeling it. Men and women who experience elevated levels of stress rate their psychological and physical health lower than those who are not experiencing stress — and are more likely to experience a range of health ailments and symptoms such as sadness (59%), sleep problems (56%), and lack of energy (55%).
It’s in our minds, but it’s not JUST in our minds. When FDR said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, he was way before his time in what we now understand about the relationship between fear and disease. WebMD experts acknowledge that stress can be a root cause of disease — what’s being determined still is exactly how it happens. So it IS in your mind, and YOU are the only person who can do anything about it. Working from a perspective of the physical body, the narrative mind and energy or spirit, you’ve got three powerful interconnected entry points into shifting your state of being, i.e., making one much happier YOU.
Are you honoring your body’s physical needs? Last I checked, we are still physically embodied during this time of year and your physical container needs attentive care now more than ever. We traditionally treat this time of year as some sort of “get out of jail free” card, shrugging off the need for focused physical movement; healthy, nutrient rich food; and “normal” sleep between 7-9 hours.
- Food: Rather than using holiday time to catch up on empty calories, saturated fat or sodium, use this time to learn how to make more healthful meals. Do a web search for “healthy holiday meals” and see what find — you might pick up ideas that work for you throughout the year.
- Drink: Two things: 1.) your body needs water and 2.) alcohol is a depressant. Period. What else do you need to know? If you wanna drink booze, you better drink lots of water. And you better drink lots of water anyway. Most of us are dehydrated and confuse thirst for hunger.
- Fitness: Want to give your body a great gift? Treat yourself to a full hour of exercise every day through the holiday season. Sound insane? Sure, maybe because you’re already stressed. But if you even do this for one day, your endorphins will kick in and when you feel that high, remind yourself, “hey self, I should do this again tomorrow”. Then do it again. And again. Being endorphin rich may be the most powerful form of affluence.
- Sleep: Since most of us are sleep deprived, falling into 14 hour sleep fests is tempting, but snoozer beware. Experts say you can’t “make up” for a sleep deficit other than through regular 7-9 hour nights of sleep, and that nap addiction can be a form of escapism…from STRESS! Although a quick nap in the afternoon can be rejuvenating, research shows that too much sleep can backfire, with irregular sleep patterns leading to insomnia at night and sluggishness just about any time. The next time you feel sleepy midday, rather than hitting the pillow, reach for your sneakers and go take a walk, take care of the garden, engage in vigorous play with your dog, friends or kids.
Ever ask yourself what the word stress really means? It comes from the latin root “districtia” which means to be torn asunder. Yikes. Can you imagine? Bloody images aside, there’s something to be addressed here that needs no further research on dictionary.com. It’s a little four-letter word that is as powerful as we let it be: fear. Most of us will admit that feeling fear does feel like being torn asunder, and fear is what makes us feel stress. While the scientists study how stress functions within the entire human species, your study has to begin immediately on your own micro-level: what are you afraid of and how are you going to address it?
- Look your enemy in the eye. If most holiday stress has to do with fears, what are yours? Allowing the causes of your stress to remain vague is to succumb to their ravages. Respect your own state of being enough to attentively assess what’s literally bringing you down or pumping you into a high state of anxiety — name your poison. Be careful here: it’s said that fear is like a cockroach
- Pick Your Battles. Some fears call for being addressed directly, some require greater understanding, and some require a higher level of wisdom. Worried about time — lovingly cancel a portion of your commitments. Yes, the world might feel like it’s coming to an end if you miss this event or that party. But if you decide that time to breathe is more important and that you do not owe ANYONE the debt of being superhuman, you’ll be better off for it. Worried about gift expectations/money — tell people you’re having a homemade holiday season. For things that cannot be addressed, is there something you can learn about managing the problem or challenge? And for things for which you already have the facts, can you imagine watching the story as a movie and see a higher wisdom being revealed at the end of the story? The holidays in every culture tend to have some story of overcoming hardship, getting through seemingly impossible situations. How can you allow the wisdom of these timeless teachings to allow grace into your heart?
- Feed Your Mind. Once you’ve looked your fears in the eye and addressed them, it’s time to put the nattering aside. Your brain gets addicted to narratives, so like any addiction you have to give yourself a new drug. Instead of obsessing endlessly over your situation, hook yourself up to some inspiration. This could be a Hollywood blockbuster with an inspiring message, a documentary about others surviving extremes, or a book on how Matt Groenig became Matt Groenig (is there such a book?) — whatever is going to engage, invigorate and inspire you is worthy of being part of your mental diet.If consumption of media is out of the question, decide that in your conversations with others you are going to ask them about things they’ve accomplished. How your neighbor learned to put in his own deck, how your cousin managed a career change, all of this expands what could be small talk into big meaning.
The best remedy I can think of for feeling poor in spirit is meaningfully connecting with self and others. Just writing that sentence felt so good, I hope it feels as good to read it. Read it again.
Connecting with self
- Write the narrative of your year so far. For each thing that has happened in your story, note some higher form of wisdom that came from the experience. By this I don’t mean “and then I learned that so-and-so is really a jerk”. I mean more the type of wisdom that allows you to hold the year with compassion, courage, and a sense of lifelong learning. Maybe so-and-so was a jerk to you. I know I’ve had my share. Rather than stopping at the judgment of that person, what did you learn about yourself in your interactions? How can you value the experience as enriching?
- Gratitude. You knew that was going to show up somewhere in this post, right? We all get reminded constantly that the practice of gratitude allows us to see that no matter how empty the cup seems sometimes, it’s a really beautiful cup and ready to be filled. Gratitude connects you to what IS present in your life rather than dwelling upon what you lack. It fills your heart – and voila, cup not empty, right? Do it — whether verbally with others, written in a journal or on a cocktail napkin (yes, I mean it — between cocktails and waters), or while taking a run or walk and get a double endorphin rush. People will think you just came from a really rockin’ holiday party.
- Bragging. Oh yes. You have to brag. You must. This has a different energy than wisdom or gratitude. This is a high-five for the soul, a moment to let your inner Rocky Balboa roar. Whether in the last hour, day, month or year, you have accomplished some MIGHTY feats. Remembering, honoring and invoking that inner prize-fighter within you conjures an I CAN energy within yourself. Come on, you haven’t lost EVERY battle. Let’s chalk up a few of the victories and frame them for your own heart to admire. If you want bonus mojo: make it a practice to ask folks you interact with over the next few weeks what they’re stoked about this year. This world needs people to know they have the capacity to succeed, to both show and act upon it.
Connecting with others
- Give your self. Volunteer. I don’t just mean at a community center although that would be great. I mean offer yourself up in a small, non-glamorous way with no expectations of getting anything in return – not even a thank you. Given that you may have time stress, you can do things in the course of what you are already doing that allow you to experience thoughtful connection with others. Pick up trash when you take your power walk. Take one of your healthy snacks to a neighbor. Call someone you know has had a tough year and tell them what you’re doing to reclaim yourself and how it’s going for you. Decide that you’re going to let other people’s bad mood pass through you like water through a sponge. Let someone off the hook completely for whatever you would normally choose to get angry about. Your generosity of self is the ultimate gift that keeps on giving.
You may notice I didn’t bring up meditating. I didn’t bring up therapeutic treatments. I didn’t mention taking supplements or getting a hobby. While all of these are great ideas and can really help if you’ve got the resources to do them, my sense is this: when time and money are the issues, the last thing you need is more tasks, costs or “shoulds”. And when your brain is in manic-monkey mode either in anxiety or sadness, forcing yourself to try to learn to meditate without masterful guidance can actually backfire.
But there’s one thing I have to add and this is just a real life observation about being a happier me. I passed through Penn Station in NYC this morning at 6AM to get on the train to be with family. An elderly drug addict of indeterminate gender high as a kite, with no ability to balance, but incredible body odor bumped up against a young 30 something professional as he/she reached for a napkin at a coffee stand. The fashionable young professional’s meticulous and silent bearing was instantly transformed into disgust and horror, his eyes shouting flames of rage at the indignation.
I watched and wanted to comfort him and say,”Hey buddy, take it easy. No biggie. That druggie has bigger problems than any of us”. I stood there in my own silence, hearing my heart beat with gratitude for not having found myself in some gutter somewhere despite the many precarious situations and decisions I have made along the way.
By grace, on the way to catch my train the same druggie appeared just in front of me, not 8 inches between our faces. He/she looked me in the eye and we focused upon each other, really seeing into each other’s eyes. “Hello beautiful”, this soul said to me — and not silently but with real audible words. Then he/she puckered as if to kiss me and said, “You take care of yourself.”
You know, I will.