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Festive Stress—and Learning How to Manage It


Family gatherings are inherently stressful for a whole host of reasons: Shani Akirov gives her tips on how to remain calm throughout the holidays.


Dec 21, 2022


Psychologist & wellbeing specialist focused on lifestyle medicine, fitness, nutrition & mental health


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Holidays are upon us, and whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah or any other festivity, holidays bring families together—often with disastrous results.

There are numerous factors making this time of year so stressful.

First, there’s the inherent stress of family time. Families are largely people we haven’t specifically chosen, yet feel obligated to get along with—especially our in-laws. Celebrations can become pressure cookers, given familial politics and their latent dramas, like favoritism and other complex dynamics. Family history is often stained with casualties of battles past—for example, sibling rivalries can spark conflict well into adulthood. Additionally, you’re gathering together people who are at different stages of life, with vastly different experiences and viewpoints. Political and religious indoctrination creates tension across generations. 

The build-up to the holiday can also be stressful, particularly with travel, or if you tend to over-commit. Can you really host a dinner for twelve this year? Do you have the time or space? Remember, you can always say “no” or ask for help. Being realistic about what you can take on will stand you in good stead.  

Holiday traditions often bring pressure to break healthy habits, which leads to stress and resentment. It’s OK—even healthy—to break habits occasionally. (Hello, cheat meal!) But it’s important to avoid an all-or-nothing mentality.

The holidays can also feel unexpectedly sad or lonely, especially for people who have lost someone, are recently separated, or live in isolation. In the winter, it’s cold and dark, and sunlight deficiency can tangibly affect your mood. (This kind of seasonal depression is called SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.) 

We also all have our “Ghost of Christmas past”—old hurts and secrets that come back to haunt us—and our own cyclical thoughts. We often say things we don’t mean (or at least don’t mean to say). Give yourself time to think about your next move instead of reacting in the moment to your emotions. Physiologically, anger only lasts in the body for around 60 seconds, but this is prolonged by rumination.

So how can you break the cycle of festive stress, find space from your emotional reactions, and come through the season intact? Here are a few techniques I’ve shared over the years that can help you find calmness in the chaos and center yourself:

1. Breathe

Breathwork has become very on-trend, and for a good reason—it works. It is simple—as simple as breathing!—yet people often get stuck on the fact that they “don’t know how.” I think this is partly because most of us don’t think about breathing or what changing the rhythm of our breath can be used for. It’s just something we do with very little thought. But when you’re in an emotionally high moment of stress, anxiety, anger, and are finding yourself in a whirlpool of rumination, moving your attention away from your thoughts and feelings and onto your breath can help break the downward spiral and put you in the present moment, calming you down. 

In the moment, you can simply focus on breathing in and out, but there are many breathing exercises you can find online that are helpful to incorporate into daily life to mitigate stress before it snowballs. Try counting your breaths, breathing in and out for up to five seconds. Slowing down your breath gets more oxygen to your brain and signals to your body that you’re not in danger, getting you out of fight or flight mode

 

2. Meditate

Meditation enhances awareness of the present moment and reduces stress levels. If you are a total beginner, don’t worry, we all start somewhere—I was “bad” at meditating once. It’s simply a factor of time spent practicing this skill, just like any other, and the more you practice meditation in times when you don’t feel overwhelmed, the easier it will become to automate it when your prefrontal cortex is paralyzed, and all reasoning ability is lost. 

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To explain briefly, the prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain associated with logical thought and reason—the part you want to use instead of reacting emotionally in times of stress. Meditation has been proven to thicken the prefrontal cortex, showing that those who practice are more able to tap into their calm, reasoning brain instead of their emotionally reactive brain. So it’s an invaluable practice to have during stressful life moments. 

My clients often ask: “what is the best way to meditate?” and “what is the best time to meditate?” My answer? The best way is the way that feels right for you for your specific goal. The same goes for timing. If you are attempting to focus better and increase productivity, try mindfulness exercises in the morning or as you are setting yourself up for work. Alternatively, if you struggle with swirling thoughts keeping you up at night, you might meditate in the evening to optimize your sleep. We are all different—which is why I never structure my classes but allow all of my clients to interpret how to use these tools in the way that is most helpful to them.

 There is no right or wrong way to meditate. Sitting and taking time out of your day to reconnect with your body through your breath is enough to activate the parasympathetic nervous system—the part of the nervous system that helps your body recover from stress. This part of your autonomic nervous system acts like the brakes of a car. Build your way to 20 minutes incrementally, starting with one minute, then five, then ten.

Beginners can try the Body Scan method of meditation, which can be practiced anytime you become overwhelmed. Imagine your breath systematically flowing into each area in the body, from the tip of your toes, all the way up to the top of your head, focusing on one area at a time.

For those who might have more meditation experience or crave an element of spirituality, you could try a Loving-Kindness meditation. This type of meditation is used to increase feelings of compassion, kindness, and acceptance toward yourself and others. During this exercise, you open yourself up to receive love and send good intentions out to others—especially useful if you feel anger or resentment towards them. It shifts your attention from being automatically negative, helping you perceive the world and your relationships in a more positive (and less stressful) light.

 

3. Go for a walk. 

When you have an argument or feeling overwhelmed, give yourself permission to go out for a walk. Simple physical movement is never a bad idea, as is being in nature, if possible. Additionally, taking time away from the source of your stress will allow you to distance yourself from the emotional event, allowing you to take time to think about how to respond. This physically allows you to “take a step back,” giving you room to reassess the situation. 

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All of these methods for mindfulness should help you get out of your feelings, reconnect to your reason, and help you act rather than react. A lot of tension with family might come from misinterpretation—remember that people love in different ways. For instance, my dad used to call me every day and ask how I was getting along with finding a job. This was, in his way, an “I love you” moment.

Familial relationships are special. They are difficult because we expect more of one another than we do other people. We often don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt because we expect unconditional love and support. But we also manage to forgive one another and value each other highest in our personal relationships. 

Don’t expect the worst: go in with a specific goal in mind, and you will find that the rest is far more bearable. Remember, this situation is temporary—you can leave if it becomes unbearable. And try to focus on the positives: as annoying as a family can be, think about what you love about them—or other things in your life you’re grateful for, if that’s not doing the trick. Above all, just come prepared with your mindfulness arsenal: protecting your own inner calm will help you and those around you to have a happier, healthier holiday together.



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