B.E. M.E.R.R.Y.

7 Simple Strategies for Surviving – and THRIVING – the Holiday Season

The weather outside is frightful – it is a slushy, grey mess of a wintry mix – but there are still a few weeks to go before relaxing by that fire-so-delightful with a good book and a hot cup of tea will be a legitimate way to spend the day.  In the meantime, there is shopping and returning, planning and decorating, merrymaking and still more shopping to do.  There is also the ongoing busy-ness of regular life.  I haven’t been getting much sleep because the headlines are angst-inducing, work deadlines are looming, my children have had rotating colds requiring frequent middle-of-the-night soothing and an old back injury has flared up.  I seem to have reverted to some pet-cemetery-like version of my former mother-of-newborn self — foggy-headed and exhausted, only older and crankier and far less loving or patient.  My days feel sluggish and less productive than usual – a combination of the lack of sleep, the weather (school delays!) and the extra burdens of holiday preparation (not to mention all the parties!).  And speaking of parties, how many nights in a row can one eat too much cheese and drink too much wine before she morphs into a sloshy, mushy blob of cheese herself?

Welcome to the most wonderful time of the year!

It’s only natural to try to guard ourselves with cynicism and sarcasm at this time of year, to suit up our internal body armor against the countless movies, songs and assorted messages reminding us that this is a season of joy, even if it feels like anything but.  The optimist in me believes there is a better way.  And because I have yet to meet a personal problem I can’t solve with a little awareness, creativity and determination, I have devised a plan.  It has been working so well, I have decided to share.  (Generosity does feel good!)  Follow these seven simple strategies for surviving and thriving the holiday season, and you, too, can …

B.E. M.E.R.R.Y.

B is for Breathe.  Call it meditation, call it watching your breath, call it a pause or a time out or any or all of the above.  Whatever you call it, make sure you DO it.  As far as strategies go, it does not get simpler than this.  More importantly, it works!  If you are willing to make meditation a daily practice, which I cannot recommend highly enough, there are countless sources currently at your fingertips.  One I recommend to all of my clients and friends (and anyone who will  listen) is a ten minute guided morning mediation which I access through You Tube (https://youtu.be/WYP_W49o1vQ).  I feel relaxed and at ease the moment I hear those first waves lapping some distant, exotic shore, and I urge you to try it for yourself.

If, however, you are one of those who flatly refuses to give meditation a try, or doesn’t feel you are capable of meditating, or would simply rather stab yourself in the eyeballs with a steak knife than sit down with your eyes closed and your legs crossed for ten minutes – or whatever you think meditation is – then just breathe.  Yes, I know you are breathing all the time.  I mean, breathe intentionally and mindfully.  Inhale deeply, noticing the air in your nostrils, the rise of your chest, the expansion of your belly.  Hold that breath for just a moment, then release slowly and calmly.  Repeat, and repeat again.  Do this whenever you feel overwhelmed, anxious, tense or set-to-blow.  Have you ever noticed how times of stress cause you to hold your breath?  Ever caught yourself sighing heavily in exasperation?  Deep, slow breathing is your body’s way of calming your nervous system, reducing stress, increasing alertness and boosting your immune system.  It helps you get centered, grounded and back in balance.  From there, whatever is going on, you gain some space and some distance and put yourself in a position to respond effectively, rather than react defensively.

Give it a try.  What have you got to lose?

E is for Exercise.  In the words of the great Reel 2 Real, You’ve got to move it, move it!  It matters not whether you run or walk, bike or hike.  You can swim laps, salute the sun, shake your booty at Zumba or pant your way through crossfit.  Whatever your workout of choice, keep it up.  If you haven’t found one yet, or if regular exercise is not part of your life, please reconsider.  Not only is some kind of regular exercise essential to your physical health, but it is the absolute best way to boost your mood.

Numerous studies show that exercising releases happy chemicals in our brains, also known as endorphins. Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body and an improved outlook on life – a natural high.  Regular exercise has also been proven to reduce stress, improve self-esteem and confidence, ease anxiety, fight insomnia and help you feel more energized, capable and confident.

If you don’t know all of this already, you have clearly been trapped under something heavy since the 1980s.  I am willing to bet my leg warmers, however, that you know it all too well, but can’t always be bothered to do it.  When it comes to exercise (as well as other more intimate physical activities), I generally advise friends and clients to adopt the Nike approach.

Just Do It.

M is for Moderation.  Indulge and imbibe!  Celebrate and spend!  Just do it all sensibly and in moderation.  Gather round the cheese plate, just don’t stay there all night.  Graciously sample the cookies your assistant brings into work, just don’t devour the whole platter.  Join your boss in raising a glass to a successful year, but avoid the embarrassment and regret of treating the office holiday party like it’s MTV Spring Break at Daytona Beach.   Shower your family, friends and loved ones with tokens of appreciation, but don’t court bankruptcy in the process.

You get the idea.  Enjoy the season, just not too much.

E is for Embrace Reality.  My mother called it managing expectations.  My father called it keeping your head screwed on right.  Tara Brach wrote a whole book about it with Radical Acceptance.  Byron Katie did the same in Loving What Is.  To paraphrase Katie, “When you argue with reality, you lose – but only 100% of the time.”  In other words, stop trying to change everyone and everything, you are only hurting yourself in the process.

Failure or refusal to accept things as they are never changes the situation about which you are so upset, it simply causes added suffering as you rail against it again and again.  Perhaps your father should be less of a hot head, your brother should be less sensitive, your husband should be less controlling or your boss less demanding.  Perhaps you should be smarter, thinner, more productive, less anxious, more patient.  Whatever it is you believe should be, ask yourself this:  How does your insistence on that alternative reality play out in your life?  How does it cause you to behave?  To treat others?  To treat yourself?  Is it serving you well?

Most likely, while you are busy denying reality, you adopt a defensive posture.  Perhaps your shoulders tense, your fists clench or your throat tightens.  Perhaps your heart pounds or your mind races with angry or defeatist thoughts.  This is your body’s fight or flight response, an indication that you feel threatened in some way.  This is useful when you are under attack, but often detrimental when interacting with relatives or friends.

On the other hand, imagine yourself free from these expectations.  Who might you be if you could embrace and accept your life and the people in it as they are (yourself included), as opposed to how you think they should be?

It’s a snowy, slushy mess out there.  I can cry and sulk and stamp my feet all day long, or send vicious tweets about mother nature being a bitch, or I can accept that I have no control over the weather and find a way to embrace the day I have been given, and make the most of it.

It is hard to enjoy much of anything, let alone the holidays, when you are tense, tight, gripping and defensive.  Instead, try letting go of unrealistic expectations and impossible demands.  Try relaxing into the moment and embracing your life – and your holidays – as they are.

This works especially well when coupled with …

R is for Reflect Upon That For Which You Are Grateful.  Ample scientific evidence establishes that focusing on the positive and making note of the things in your life for which your are grateful, trains the brain to look at the world from a more positive perspective.  This, in turn, makes you a happier, more optimistic, lighter, more enthusiastic human being.

We tend to think that it is the circumstances of our lives which dictate our level of happiness.  According to scientific studies, however, our happiness levels depend 50% on our genetics, ONLY 10% on our personal circumstances and a whopping 40% on our intentional daily activities – those thoughts, behaviors and activities which we choose with our own volition.  (You can simply take my word for this, or for a more thorough explanation, check out The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at The University of California, Riverside).

We can’t change our genetic set point.  Occasionally we can change our circumstances, but more often than not, we have the most control over our attitude and outlook.  And the great news?  Current research proves that happiness is achieved and sustained through intentional habit changes, even more than circumstantial changes.  One of the easiest of these habit changes is a daily practice of focusing on the positive aspects of life.

Today, instead of grumbling any further about the harsh weather, I stopped to feel grateful for my attached garage, my furry snow boots and my car’s seat heater.  Instead of griping about the client who canceled on me last minute, I paused, allowed myself a moment of frustration, then used the hour to accomplish other necessary items on my list.

It’s as simple as could be, and all it takes is a few minutes a day.  Start there, and before you know it, gratitude and positivity will be a reflex, and increased happiness and well-being will be yours.

R is for Rock Out.  Music is incredibly powerful, and has an undeniable impact upon our emotions and mood.  You know that feeling, when you’re driving along in the car and your favorite tune comes on?  You instinctively turn up the dial and feel twenty years younger, a sense of freedom, joy and vitality replacing whatever icky blah feeling you had before.  Just like exercise releases endorphins, music is believed to release a certain feel-good chemical in the brain, dopamine, that plays a key role in mood enhancement.  (Dopamine is also triggered in response to stimuli such as Oreos and cocaine, and less tangible stimuli like being in love).

It might be a classical symphony piece, a romping jazz ensemble or your favorite pop sensation du jour.  Whatever genre does it for you, I highly recommend you make a date to put on your favorite tunes and blast them.  Include your family, your friends, your husband or your dog.  Or just lock yourself in the basement like a teenager and shut out the world.

Earlier today, while my children waited in the car for me to take them to school, I was yelling at the top of my lungs into a pillow, overwhelmed with frustration and desperate to release it.  Upon returning home from dropoff, I tabled the usual workout for an imaginary visit to Studio 54, circa 1975.  After 40 minutes in the supreme company of Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and others, I was feeling like Hot Stuff baby, indeed!

Y is for You Do You.  Part of what is so stressful about family and relationships is some false belief about who we have to be in the presence of others.  Whether we are aware of it or not, many of us voluntarily assume certain roles, then go around resenting others for “not letting us” be ourselves.

I have one client who practically crawls up into a ball of anxiety and despair every time her mother comes to visit.  The self-inflicted paralysis invariably begins two weeks prior to her mother’s arrival.

“You don’t understand my mother,” she tells me.  “She is insane.  Everything has to be a certain way, especially at the holidays.  I have to get out the good china, set a beautiful table, make the perfect meal.  My children have to be scrubbed and polished and impeccable, too.  I can’t invite friends, lest they commit some crime (like bringing a store-bought dessert). I can’t even wear pants, or God forbid, jeans!”

The only thing more impossible to imagine than making her mother proud (or even satisfied), is abandoning the effort to do so.

In my own life, I have wasted years trying to squeeze myself into parts that didn’t quite fit, trying to please parents, friends and others by being the person I thought they wanted me to be, all the while, feeling resentful, misunderstood and disconnected.  As it turned out, when I finally began showing up as my true self — ripped jeans, zany ideas, unpopular opinions and all — most of my relationships improved exponentially.  More importantly?  I felt utterly free.  Free to just be me.

If you are dreading seeing certain relatives this holiday season, ask yourself this: Are you an adult?  Do you have the right to be who you are, or are you going to let the expectations of others define you?  Set boundaries, and stick with them.  Let go of the need to please everyone and just be yourself.  In the process of dropping your self-imposed behavioral restrictions, you might find that you are better able to relax, to see the bigger picture, to laugh at yourself and your relatives.  This, in turn, might help them to relax (because more often than not, if you are feeling judged by them, they are also feeling judged by you.)  When you all drop your defensive postures and just DO YOU, you might even find that you like each other.  And if not?  At least you haven’t compromised your integrity for a bunch of [insert derogatory label of your choice here].

Be warned.  All the trials and tribulations of personal growth are only exaggerated when dealing with other people.  So if You Doing You feels impossible, or more trouble than it’s worth, there is an alternate “Y” that never fails.

Remove yourself to a separate space, bury your face in a pillow and just YELL!!!!

Happy Holidays.