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Think about a flight map in the back of an airline magazine. How it graphically illustrates, with hundreds of crisscrossing lines, all of the cities throughout the country that the airline flies to and from. It’s visually mind-boggling.

The hallmark of the holiday season revolves around giving and generosity of spirit

It’s also an apt metaphor for the anticipation of trying to coordinate all of our hopes, plans, schedules, and obligations for the holiday season. The time period between Halloween and the new year can seem like a crowded roadmap that could lead to collisions of stress, upset, and disappointment.

Holiday overwhelm is a common occurrence. Typically, a perfect storm of frenzied, over-extended schedules, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and unrealistic, idealistic expectations of ourselves and others conspire to undermine our best intentions. Whether you are eagerly anticipating the holidays or secretly dreading them, the common denominator for promoting and maintaining a sense of well-being is that we must pay close attention to nurturing ourselves along the way. It’s as important a part of our holiday flight map as every other responsibility.

Self-care need not be perceived as selfish. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The hallmark of the holiday season revolves around giving and generosity of spirit. But we can’t give what we don’t have. Self-care is highly responsible. We can define this as our proactive “ability to respond.” Taking care of ourselves allows us to give from our abundance, instead of running on fumes out of deficit. If we respond first to our needs for well-being, we will then have a full tank of energy for our interactions and treasured relationships.

Tips for Holiday Self-Care

Be on Speaking Terms with Your Feelings

The way you feel about yourself determines the quality of your life. We live in our feelings. When they are unknown to us because we have not taken time to attend to them, understand them and respond to them, we wind up acting out of them, blindly, and often inappropriately. When this happens we say things that we don’t mean. Holiday dinners can become a battleground of divisive discourse instead of a place for respectful, nourishing exchange. Arguing and defending our unexamined emotions creates more upset. As a result, we can find ourselves retreating into resentment, sadness, and isolation. Feelings do not need to be fixed. They need to be heard. They are messengers of our perception. When we turn away from our feelings, we can’t know what matters to us. We need to be on speaking terms with them.

Consciously recognizing and wrapping words around a feeling helps to minimize the effects of negative emotions. (See post, The Science of Why Naming Our Feelings Makes Us Happier. In a study in the Journal Psychological Science, researchers at UCLA found that naming and labeling feelings dramatically reduced the influence of negative emotions. While hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), research participants were shown pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Initially, the “feeling” portion of the brain (the amygdala) involved in emotional reactivity lit up. But when they were asked to put a name to the emotion that they were viewing, another part of the brain (the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) took over. When this “thinking” part of the brain was activated, it disrupted and reduced the activity of the reactive amygdala.

The simplified message is this: Take time to listen, identify, and name what you are feeling before communicating those feelings to others. By doing this, we can come closer to knowing more intimately and compassionately the currency of our own hearts. This knowledge will contribute immeasurably in fostering communication and connection with others.

Touch and Be Touched

Touch has the ability to connect us with others, both physically and emotionally, while simultaneously decreasing the stress response. Touching or being touched by someone you love reduces stress hormones, promotes connection, and releases the bonding hormone, oxytocin. This happy trifecta of well-being effects can go a long way toward creating more peace on earth and goodwill toward men and women this holiday season!

In a study in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers at the University of Zurich found that oxytocin suppressed the stress hormone cortisol and had an anxiety reducing effect. The combination of oxytocin and social support showed the lowest cortisol levels, as well as increasing calmness during stressful times. A simple hug can extend comfort while promoting good health and happiness. Virginia Satir, the internationally acclaimed, family therapist, is famous for espousing, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

Practice Self-Compassion

Calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings as they unfold is the key

Extending compassion to others enables us to connect with them through non-judgment, acceptance, and kindness. Self-compassion involves acting that same way towards ourselves. In a study in the Journal of Research in Personality, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., and colleagues found that having compassion for oneself is linked to happiness, initiative, and optimism. In her book, Self-Compassion, Dr. Neff explains 3 healing elements of self-compassion and how to practice them.

  • Self-Kindness—Monitor your self-talk. Replace harsh criticism, blame, and name calling (e.g. “I’m so stupid, I’ll never get this.”) with kind words of understanding and comfort (“I’m so frustrated, but after a short break, I’ll feel better.”)
  • Common Humanity—Remind yourself that whatever form of suffering you are experiencing, be it physical, mental, emotional or spiritual—you are not alone. Acknowledge that you are not separate from these universally shared and very human feelings of upset, loss, and struggle.
  • Mindfulness—Practice pausing to take time to observe any negative emotions before reacting to them. When you increase your compassionate awareness of what you are feeling in this manner the negative emotions have less of a chance of gaining a foothold or of being suppressed and stored as resentment and anger.

Calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings as they unfold is the key. Identify them, share them with a trusted other and then release them. Practicing self-compassion this holiday season will not result in self-absorption and isolation, but instead will foster connection and communion. As we learn to accept and honor our humanness, we are compelled to extend this mercy to others because we know firsthand how good it feels to receive loving-kindness.

Count Your Blessings, Speak Your Thanks

The crazy-busy demands we place on others and ourselves during the holiday season can make us cranky at best and downright nasty at worst. Gratitude to the rescue! When we step away, even for a minute, from our long to-do lists, what really matters comes into focus again. We begin to realize that every festive meal we prepare, every tradition we continue, every gift we buy—all have the same, motivating intention—our love and appreciation for others.

In this study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at UC Davis tested the effect that gratitude had on psychological and physical well-being. They concluded that a conscious focus on blessings creates emotional and interpersonal benefits. Stop now and make a mental list of your family and friends for whom you are grateful. This requires no extensive research. Your heart is ready, willing and able to remind you of each person’s preciousness to you. Take a respite from any busyness and rest for a moment in the richness, sweetness, abundance, and gratitude for these life-giving connections.

A friend recently sent me a thank you card with this quote on it, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” Her gratitude was indeed a gift to me. When I called her to thank her, we laughed together about being thankful for receiving thanks. Feeling gratitude  and then taking the next step to speak our appreciation often creates a happy redundancy of boomerang caring. At this time of year, as we celebrate our unique family and faith traditions, it can be healing to remember that we are all part of an immense family of humanity.

In the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “We draw the circle of our family too small.” Every single one of us wants the exact same thing—more peace and less pain, both inside and out. During this holiday season, let’s take extra good care of ourselves in order to be able to share more gentleness, more generosity, and more goodwill with one another. How do you nourish yourself during the busy holiday season?                 

Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

Hearts linked, together we heal…

Better Health Begins With You...

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