Jennifer Farley, PsyD
Lindner Center of HOPE, Staff Psychologist
The holiday season can be an enjoyable and peaceful time for many of us. We adults know that this can also be a busy, tense, overstimulating, overindulgent, and overwhelming time. Any of these experiences can be triggered, for example, by holiday memories of the past, our current experiences, or worries about the future. We also may have expectations for how our holidays “should” be, which can bring about even more stress in planning them or sadness or anger if our experiences fall short of what we wanted.
Using mindfulness, or focused attention on the “here and now,” can be helpful in making the holiday season more tolerable and, hopefully, more enjoyable. Mindfulness involves being self-aware of one’s thoughts or feelings or behaviors in the current moment and without judgment. Why the current moment? Because thinking about the past can bring about sadness (and depression) and thinking about the future can bring about worry (and anxiety). Being mindful without judgment is also important – it helps prevent an emotion from being experienced more intensely. For example, telling oneself, “I’m a horrible friend for not giving them a gift,” is far different than, “I have the thought that I am a horrible friend for not giving them a gift.” Similarly, reflecting, “I’m sad that my family member isn’t here,” is experienced differently than “I have the feeling of sadness about my family member not being here.” The without judgment part also comes from not judging oneself or anyone else for having a particular thought, feeling, or behavior. Telling oneself, for example, that they’re “bad” for thinking or feeling a certain way is a judgment – having a thought or feeling simply makes one human. What we do with a thought or feeling is what matters more.
Thoughts about how the holidays “should be” can intensify people’s emotional experiences further. Many people, for instance, experience “shoulds” surrounding holiday traditions. While these can bring comfort to our holidays, “shoulds” can also weigh people down with guilt, burden, or anxiety. Family traditions are important, but so is the consideration of how a specific tradition might be unreasonable to expect – for oneself or others. Letting go of the word “should” allows more flexibility and adaptability to an experience, and as such, can bring about more joy and a lot less tension. Do you really “need” to host Christmas dinner? Or is it that you prefer it but can adapt to having someone else host?
Mindfulness can be practiced by observing and describing one’s current thought(s) or feeling(s). Mindfulness can also involve doing something with intention. Consider how you might – with focused intention – wrap a present, look at Christmas lights, drink your cup of coffee or hot chocolate, hug a loved one, sing a Christmas carol, hang ornaments on your tree, watch a favorite holiday movie, or study the fire in the fireplace. Doing something with intention helps you remain in the present moment. Be aware of how your phone or other distractions prevent you from being fully present with others. If you find yourself diving deeper into a holiday memory, try to catch yourself first, and mindfully reflect if it’s a happy or heartwarming memory or one that could bring about sadness or hurt or anger.
One classic holiday movie (A Christmas Story) features Ralphie and his myriad of Christmas-related incidents. There are two scenes that highlight mindfulness practice: 1) when Ralphie looks with amazement at the snow-covered scene outside his bedroom window on Christmas morning, and 2) when Ralphie’s parents sit together in the dark and gaze at their Christmas tree. Another movie (Elf) depicts a father making a choice to fully participate in singing a carol with his family. These pop culture references may help highlight ways you might practice mindfulness in your own ways this holiday season. As a result, may your next month or so be experienced with mindful moments that bring self-awareness, peace, and joy.