For many, the holiday season brings a great deal of joy. The festivities are a great chance to catch up and celebrate with family, friends and good food, unwinding and reflecting on the past year. However, this period can also bring stress; it may be difficult for some, particularly those who may have lost loved ones, or who have complicated relationships with other family members. If you’re struggling with your mental health, or feel burdened by work, family drama, or even just organising a holiday party, it can feel like a very rushed and stressful time. Even for those who enjoy celebrating Christmas, the holiday cheer can often pass quickly, and before we know it, a new year has begun. So, what can we do to help make the most of the goodness that this time of year offers? Well, mindfulness practice could be a great place to start. Being mindful during the holiday period is a great way to avoid getting caught up in the holiday stress, allowing us to appreciate the subtle moments of calm, gratitude and joy which the festive season can bring.
Why Mindfulness During the Holidays Can Be Difficult
When the Christmas lights are up, and the shops are full to the brim with people rushing around, intent on crossing every item off their list, it can be a hectic time. It’s easy to get caught up in the madness and feel like we should be rushing around and doing as much as possible, just like everyone else. Making a conscious effort to be more present is a good way to shed some perspective on the whole situation. But that’s often easier said than done.
It can be healthy to accept that our celebrations don’t need to live up to all the perfect, idealistic expectations buildup by the media and advertising industries about what the holiday spirit is all about. Reducing our stress levels around this time involves accepting that how we choose to celebrate is entirely dependent on ourselves, and no one else. Keeping in mind what is really important to us can also help reduce feelings of frustration or negativity. When we are clear about what truly matters to us, we are less likely to compare ourselves and our situation to others, allowing us to be more appreciative of what we already have.
Dealing with feelings and memories
Experiencing contradictory feelings around the holiday period is natural. A lot is going on, and it’s totally understandable that a whole range of emotions may crop up. It’s often a time in which we’ll reunite with friends or family who we haven’t seen in a while; this can cause us to settle into old traditions (and potentially, bad habits), or deal with specific scenarios which we would otherwise avoid.
The festive period can also cause a variety of memories to emerge. These could be joyous, painful, or both — grief is a prime example of this. It can be challenging to deal with grief at a time that is portrayed as being the most joyful part of the year, while experiencing a wonderful time during the holidays may cause you to feel guilt. Awareness and reduced judgment can help to make this time more bearable. Self-compassion is also essential, as it helps us to respond to our own emotions and thoughts with kindness and patience, no matter how difficult they may seem at first. Being mindful and compassionate can help us to distance ourselves from unwanted attachments or difficult memories, while recognising and noticing thoughts and thought patterns can help take us out of negative cycles. But what are some practical examples of how to be mindful during this busy, complicated period? We’ve compiled some advice designed to help you acknowledge your own thoughts and feelings, appreciate quality time with loved ones, and incorporate mindfulness techniques into your daily life throughout the holiday period.
Loneliness at Christmas
Because of the pressures and expectations surrounding Christmas, many people are reluctant to speak up about how they’re really feeling during the festive season. The truth is, loneliness at this time of year affects a huge amount of people. Research has shown that more than half a million old people (65+) expect to feel lonely at Christmas, while over a quarter of the UK population said Christmas has a negative impact on their mental health.
A number of factors contribute towards this shift; you may feel left out because everyone else seems happy when you’re not, you may feel lonely because of the death of a loved one or a broken-up relationship, or perhaps you find it harder to access services which normally help you feel better. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make the festive season a little bit easier.
Create your own ‘perfect Christmas’ – Ignore all the popular ideas about ‘the perfect Christmas’ — do what’s right for you. You don’t have to eat turkey and all the trimmings, drink eggnog or watch the Queen’s speech. Instead, go for a long bike ride, order a takeaway, or watch some scary films; whatever it is, think about what might make you happy and plan your day around that.
Do something different – If the thought of spending Christmas alone at home makes you feel anxious or lonely, why not try something completely different? Take a trip away, go for a meal out, enjoy some new scenery. If getting bogged down by traditions makes you unhappy, forget about them and go off-script!
Volunteer – Volunteering for a charity or organisation that you care about will not only make a real difference in your community, it will also be incredibly rewarding for you personally. Supporting people less fortunate than yourself can help you appreciate the positives in your life and realise all the skill, kindness and compassion you have to offer.
For more guidance on how to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation during the festive season, check out mental health charity Mind’s advice on how to cope at this time of year.
How to Be Mindful During the Holidays
Even if you don’t want to take a trip away, volunteer locally, or do something else that’s a bit different this Christmas, there are loads of ways that you can make this time of year easier on a day-to-day basis. Mindfulness is one of the best tools we have for countering stress, anxiety, nervousness and depression; next, we’ll take you through some ways to be mindful during the holidays.
Respond, don’t react
In stressful moments, being mindful can help us to think about what small things we could change to make certain situations more pleasant. Even when change isn’t possible, we can always choose to pause and be mindful about how to respond to challenging people or situations. This may be difficult at first, but it is a mindset shift which can be hugely satisfying. Responding with kindness, for example, can separate us from feelings of negativity which may otherwise continue affecting us throughout our day. Tuning inward and listening to how we are feeling and reacting to things as the holidays draw closer is a useful tool which can help us to slow down and encourage relaxation over this period. A calm approach to what can be a chaotic period can prove invaluable for our mental and emotional wellbeing.
This period is also a time to let go of old habits. While it may not be helpful to set unrealistic expectations for the new year, many of us enjoy looking forward to a fresh start. However, we shouldn’t pressure ourselves to get everything perfect in time for the holidays, because ultimately this can dampen both our holiday spirit and our future self-esteem. Instead, try to simply let things go and appreciate this time for what it is. Avoiding burn out at this time means being realistic about what we can achieve and what we want for ourselves over the holidays. Living in the present moment can help to address any unrealistic expectations, allowing us to focus on the here and now, and appreciate the present without worrying about the future or ruminating on the past.
Be more grateful
Counting our blessings is something that should be a part of our routine, but for many, it is all too easy to get caught up in the scarcity mindset. It is easy to feel like we are not doing enough, we don’t have enough, or even that we ourselves are not good enough — but this mindset is damaging, and will only exacerbate cycles of negativity. Researchers have proven time and time again that being mindful and appreciative of all the valuable things we have is one of the best ways to increase our happiness levels. You may think that this refers largely to material goods; admittedly, at a time when gift-giving is part of a long-held tradition, distancing ourselves from any emotional attachment to such things can be difficult. However, our possessions actually tend to have minimal effect on our mood and wellbeing, despite what advertisements may want us to believe. Meaningful relationships, positive experiences and emotional well-being is what will bring us true happiness, rather than just presents. On that note, try to be mindful of how you react when purchasing or receiving gifts. Of course, there’s no need to feel guilty about what we receive, but it is certainly useful to try to cultivate a healthy and balanced approach to material goods.
Have a mindful festive season
One of the main reasons the festive season is important to us is because we have learned to associate it with various rituals, expectations and traditions. If you find these rituals somewhat difficult or tedious, remember that it’s up to us how we spend our holidays. And crucially, if we find ourselves having to go along with certain things we would rather avoid, then it’s up to us how we react. At this time of year, try to be mindful of yourself and others, cultivating compassion and trying to have some perspective at a time that can feel overwhelming, chaotic, anti-climactic, or fleeting.
Mindfulness can be hugely helpful in providing a more realistic and balanced outlook on this period. Its simple but effective processes of awareness, concentration and balance can ease a great deal of emotional and mental turmoil, allowing us more space to feel happiness and joy. As Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn states, mindfulness is simply “awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” This holiday season, try and remember to be mindful, no matter how hectic things may get. Remember that you are responsible for how you react to situations, and for protecting your own peace of mind. With a little more perspective, gratitude, and present-mindedness, this time of year can be even happier, calmer, and more fulfilling.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.