Christmas, and family gatherings are believed to be the happiest holiday season for many. Unfortunately, as the holidays get closer and closer, you may notice that your emotionality, stress levels, internal tension, and that of those around you gradually rise.
What Causes Such Internal Tension and Rising Stress Levels During the Holidays?
Family Systems– Spending time with family during the holidays is a tradition many maintain but also a great source of stress. Relationships with family can be complex, riddled with unhappy memories from the past. Not being able to fully be oneself as the family dynamic often puts us in roles we have outgrown, ignores our growth and shows little acceptance of who we have become and that our values are different causes problems and stress.
Expectations– The holidays are only ever as good as what we create in our mind. Our imagination of how things should be during the holidays can cause stress if the reality does not meet up to what one envisioned.
Financial Demands– This season has a high financial demand from high travel costs, the obligations related to getting the perfect present, cooking perfect meals, entertaining everyone at a high level. These things can put people under pressure and dampen the holiday spirit.
Habits (Old Neural Pathways)– Old patterns and limiting behaviours used to deal with past hardships, traumatic moments and are no more befitting for situations we face now cause problems. The more we use them, the more these neural pathways are strengthened in our brains.
Change– A whole range of emotions connected to different experiences we may have had are triggered during the holidays. So much is reflected upon. Some of which are sad and difficult to process and can cause poor states of mind.
The Brain Plays a Big Role in how you Cope Over the Holidays
As already established, we are faced with both stress and happiness during the holidays.
Cortisol, our primary stress hormone, can fluctuate a lot over the holiday breaks.
Dealing with the stressors we encounter calls for what E. Braaten, an associate professor, calls the Shifting Set which are shifting cognitive strategies we use to respond to the changes and demands of the setting we find ourselves in.
Applying shifting set can be challenging at any time, as it is, but even more so during the holidays as it calls for the cognitive flexibility to focus attention and quickly adapt to changing situations (a neuro agile brain.)
The shifting set matters because it includes skills we use daily in our lives and work like planning, being attentive, organising, remembering details, updating focus, and managing time.
The holidays make us need to pay more attention than we normally would to responsibilities, communication and things that need doing, which in turn uses up the limited mental energy of the brain.
The acute holiday stress levels we experience, if allowed to run unchecked, can push the brain’s PFC into overdrive and as we know the brain is all for survival – even if this means being reactive non-stop.
The Brain is the Most Sensitive Detection System of All.
There is nothing as draining and unresourceful for a person as his or her brain in a ´threat detection` mode in settings like negotiations, feedback sessions, holidays and family gatherings that do not really call for this.
Thinking About What is to Come
Experience which gives us an extensive range of practical knowledge serves as the brain’s source of patterns which it uses to process how we react or respond i.e., if this, then that.
This is precisely how and why we can find ourselves acting on our mispredictions, reacting to times when reality does not match up with our expectations and when what we anticipated does not crystalize as planned.
Past experiences of the holidays and family gatherings make many people handle these times like there is some recurring danger or threat ahead. This makes being highly mindful of our attention so vital: the interplay between information, energy, and relationships, and how this relates to the brain – how everything is processed during the holidays and other cognitive demanding settings.
Helpful Questions to Navigate Ones Focus
- How am I processing the load of information coming my way? Resourcefully or in an acutely stressed manner?
- What thoughts, feelings and emotions are occurring to me as I relate with others and what is happening around me?
- What energy and mindset do I need to move forward to enable a win-win for everyone?
- How is my thinking impacting my behaviour right now?
- Am I operating as the CEO of my brain right now or is it running me?
Brain-Friendly Strategies to Help You Get Through the Holidays and Family Gatherings
Mindfulness– There is power in being able to deal easily with what can be overwhelming brain chatter- possessing a high level of emotional agility and mastery. This is what applying mindfulness practices can do for you: improve your connection with others, reduce internal stress and anxiety, decrease frictions in your relationships, and raise your understanding and ability to actively listen.
Compassion and Acceptance– More often than not, the concept: It is as it is, applies to a lot of things we encounter during the holidays. Accepting this helps to avoid negative thoughts and unresourceful inner chatter. Embracing the fact that we are each unique and going through our own challenges helps us to be more understanding and to have compassion for ourselves and others.
Do not take things personally– The brain reacts with freeze, flight, and fight (even faint) when in a reactive state fighting all the inner wars and how the period is perceived. Appreciating everyone’s humanness and communicating as honestly as possible with others about how things are occurring to you is the best way to change perception and appreciate the possibility of the holidays.
Practicing the sacred pause– Taking a deep breath for 2-3 seconds helps you to step into responding rather than reacting to occurrences. This practice helps you to be more intentional in your response to whatever happens – you can cultivate patience and lower impulsive moves this way.
Service Work– Volunteering your time and providing others with help can positively boost your mood, raise your state of happiness and lower tension and anxiety.
Have a Budget– Be clear on what you can spend during the festive period, agree ahead of time, and communicate clearly with others about acceptable alternatives, so no one ends up experiencing financial strains of any kind.
Be Active– The benefits of moving are vast and help the brain to deal with poor moods and high stress levels. Exercising increases natural dopamine (a natural mood enhancer) in the brain. Maintain a routine during the holidays to help you feel at ease with the intense feasting and family activities. Cardio, Yoga, interval training, and outdoor walks or hikes are just some of the things you can do.
Spiritual Reflection– What do the holidays mean to you? The holidays can serve as a great time to awaken your inner awareness and enhance your body, mind, and soul connection. Do things to find balance, internal calm and needed insights. Benefit from meditation and writing down what the essence of the holidays is to you. Practice gratitude, focus on sharing with others, perform small acts of kindness. Be still and find your calm spot within.
The holiday season can certainly be more than a period you dislike, driven by negative thoughts, emotional hijacks, stress, and an inability to let go of negative perspectives.
With the help of our greatest asset: the brain (neuroplasticity), we can learn how to deal better with stress signals and enter the holidays with a more positive perception and create a new experience that benefits all.
You can get clarity and learn to look at this period with a new lens.
This post was first mentioned in the Authoritti5.0 Magazine