December 21, 2012 12:32:58 PM
The holiday season is upon us -- a time to lovingly connect with family, to relax, recharge and emerge happy, content and revitalized.
This is the perfect moment to slow down and reflect on why what should be a time of generosity, celebration and coming together so often becomes a time of high anxiety. It's also a moment to focus on the steps we can take to truly enjoy the holiday season. Because it's not just enjoyment that holiday stress can take from us, but our health, as well. In the American Heart Association's journal Circulation, Dr. Robert Kloner coined the maladies the "Merry Christmas Coronary" and the "Happy New Year Heart Attack" to describe the increase in cardiac problems during the holiday season -- so there's a lot more at stake than dealing with your mother-in-law's passive-aggressive compliments ("I didn't know you could do this with a turkey ... so creative!").
So how do we change things? As with most things, we can start by changing ourselves -- how we react to the seasonal madness. And if enough people changed, then the culture itself would change. "If you want to change the world," Alexander Solzhenitsyn asked, "who do you begin with, yourself or others?"
Stress is truly in the eye -- and the psyche and arteries and heart and immune system -- of the beholder. Change the way we deal with it and we change the situation. But how to do that?
Of course, the holidays have a stress-producing capacity all their own. Activities we should ostensibly enjoy become wellsprings of stress. People we love become just more items to check off on the to-do list. Instead of feeling connected to our friends and family, they come to represent obligations that make us feel more distant.
Gratitude can be the greatest antidote to stress during the holidays. Studies have shown that people who keep gratitude journals and gratitude lists have more enthusiasm, determination, energy, optimism -- and less stress.
Of course, one of my favorite tips for any season is "Get enough sleep." Adequate sleep is especially needed around the holidays, since too little REM-time will exacerbate every holiday stress point from gift-buying to holiday meals with your in-laws. One of my own gift-giving tips is to find something you really love and give it to everybody on your list. It's not only a great time-saver, it's also a great way to share something you love -- whether it's a book or my favorite Pottery Barn alarm clock, which I gave to all my friends last year so they could stop using the excuse that they needed their iPhone by their bed to wake them up in the morning.
One of the most centered people I know, Joan Witkowski, who does body work and breathing coordination, has a simple practice for herself that we can all use during the holiday shopping insanity: "Monday is my day of errands, so I used to go down my to-do list and then come home at the end of the day exhausted. Now, I introduce moments of being and recovery in between my errands. I find a cafe or a place to sit, not to look at my phone, but to just breathe and be. By the end of the day, I have everything done and so much more energy."
There are many tools. The key is to prioritize not letting stress turn the holidays from a time of renewal to a time of frenzy. "Everything changed the day she figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in her life," writes the artist Brian Andreas. I love that quote because it reminds me that even though we may think that we can't possibly fit everything we have to do into the time we have, we can fit everything important.
So as we head into the Most Wonderful -- uh, Stressful -- Time of the Year, let's remember to give ourselves the first gift: the gift of mastering our stress and not being slaves to it.