Christmas can be the most stressful time of the year, but it doesn't have to be this way. If you follow this 10-step guide to "de-stressing" your Christmas, then it just might become one of the most relaxing times of the year.
One step should be carried out on each of the next 10 days. They're based on the ideas found in the international bestseller Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. The book uses a unique program based on mindfulness meditations developed by us at Oxford University in the UK to relieve anxiety, stress, exhaustion, and depression. It's been proven by countless clinical trials to be at least as effective as drugs or counseling for dealing with these conditions.
First, what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is quite simply paying full whole-hearted attention. A typical meditation involves paying full attention to the breath as it flows in and out of the body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.
Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress hover overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past.
Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression, and irritability so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily. Other studies have shown that regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves, creativity increases, and reaction times become faster.
Day 1: Eat some chocolate
At this time of year, it's all too easy to eat too much chocolate and scoff down far too many mince pies. At first, all that lovely rich food is packed with flavour and is totally irresistible, but after a while, you hardly notice it at all. And if you are in a rush, it tends to be wolfed down by the handful.
When you eat without thinking, you miss out on so many wonderful flavours, textures, and aromas. A single bar of chocolate, for example, has over 300 different flavours. How many of them do you normally taste?
Reconnecting with your senses is the heart of mindfulness, so why not try this Chocolate Meditation to help you enjoy your food again?
Day 2: Go for a short walk
Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever and mood booster. A good walk can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves. It"s the ideal way of taking a break from all of those projects that have to be completed by Christmas.
So today, why not go for a 15-30 minute walk? You don"t have to go anywhere special. A walk to the shops to do a bit of Christmas shopping, taken in an open frame of mind, can be just as interesting as a hike through the mountains.
There's no need to feel that you have to rush anywhere; the aim is to walk as mindfully as you can, focusing your awareness on your feet as they land on the ground, and feeling the fluid movements of all the muscles and tendons in your feet and legs.
Pay attention to all of the sights, sounds, and smells. You might see the deep red colour of the berries on the holly bushes or the pearlescent white of mistletoe — or perhaps the inky greyness of slushy ice and snow. See if it is possible to be open to all your senses: Smell the mustiness of the winter leaves; feel the rain on your head; the breeze on your face; watch how the patterns of light and shade shift unexpectedly.
Day 3: Take a three-minute breathing space
When you're becoming angry, exhausted, anxious or stressed, it's difficult to remember why you should remain calm. And at times, it can feel as if Christmas was created just to bait you.
The Three-Minute Breathing Space Meditation was created to deal with such feelings. Its impact is twofold. Firstly, it's a meditation that's used to punctuate the day so that it dissolves negative thought patterns before they gain control over your life. Secondly, it's an emergency meditation that helps "ground" you when your thoughts threaten to spiral out of control.
When you are carrying out the meditation, you may find that your mind repeatedly runs away with itself. This is entirely natural. It's what minds do. They leap around and offer up thoughts to your conscious self, much as a child holds up its toys to an approving adult. When you find that your mind has wandered, gently escort it back to full awareness and continue following the instructions on the track as best you can.
Day 4: Do something pleasurable
At this time of year, exhaustion, stress, and unhappiness can easily dominate our lives. It's almost as if we are subconsciously reacting against the "enforced merriment" of Christmas. You can start to experience "anhedonia" — that is, you can"t find pleasure in life. The things you used to enjoy now leave you "cold" — you feel as if a thick fog has put a barrier between you and simple pleasures, and few things seem rewarding any more.
You can counteract this by taking baby steps towards the things that you used to like doing but have since forgotten about. You can make a start by choosing one or two of the following things to do (or perhaps come up with your own ideas):
- Be kind to your body. Have a nice hot bath; have a nap for 30 minutes (or perhaps a little less); treat yourself to your favourite food without feeling guilty; have your favourite hot drink.
- Do something you enjoy. Visit or phone a friend (particularly if you"ve been out of contact for a while); get together what you need so you can do your favourite hobby; take some exercise; bake a cake; read something that gives you pleasure (not "serious" reading); listen to some music that you have not listened to in a long while.
Day 5: The intensely frustrating line meditation
Christmas often seems like one big, long line: You have to line up to buy presents, to pay for the food in the supermarket, and all of the bars and restaurants are crammed with people waiting to order.
Next time you feel like screaming, "Why don"t they just get on with it?" try carrying out our Intensely Frustrating Line Meditation instead.
When you are in a line, see if you can become aware of your reactions when something holds up your progress. Perhaps you joined the "wrong" line, and are obsessing about whether to make a dash for another one that seems shorter? At such times, it is helpful to "check in" with what"s going on in your mind. Taking a moment to ask yourself:
- What is going through my mind?
- What sensations are there in my body?
- What emotions and impulses am I aware of?
Mindfulness accepts that some experiences are unpleasant. Mindfulness will, however, help by allowing you to tease apart the two major flavors of suffering — primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the initial stressor, such as the frustration of being in a long queue. You can acknowledge that it is not pleasant; it"s OK not to like it. Secondary suffering is all of the emotional turbulence that follows in its wake, such as anger and frustration, as well as any ensuing thoughts and feelings that often arise in tandem. See if you can see these clearly as well. See if it's possible to allow the frustration to be here without trying to make it go away.
Day 6: Set up a mindfulness bell
Pick a few ordinary activities from daily life that you can turn into "mindfulness bells," that is, reminders to stop and pay attention to things in great detail. There's a list below of things you might like to turn into bells. You don"t have to turn them all into "mindfulness bells" — they are just suggestions.
- Preparing food for Christmas: Food offers a host of opportunities to become more mindful. If you're preparing food — particularly Christmas ones that are rich in flavours, smells and textures — then try and pay full mindful attention to all that you are doing.
- Wrap the presents: Focus on the sound and feel of the scissors as they slice through the wrapping paper. How does the paper feel? Soft and slippery or stiff and sharp-edged? How do the presents look, feel and smell?
- Listening to friends: At Christmas parties, it's easy to lapse into the same tired-old conversations, so why not turn a friend"s voice into a "bell" that"s a signal to pay full attention to what they are saying? Notice when you are not listening — when you start to think of something else, what you are going to say in response, etc. Come back to actually listening.
Day 7: The 10-finger gratitude exercise
To come to a positive appreciation for the small things in your life, you can try the gratitude exercise. It simply means that once a day you should bring to mind 10 things that you are grateful for, counting them on your fingers. It is important to get to 10 things, even when it becomes increasingly harder after three or four! This is exactly what the exercise is for — intentionally bringing into awareness the tiny, previously unnoticed elements of the day.
Day 8: Do the sounds and thoughts meditation
Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. The sound of Jingle Bells or White Christmas might cheer you up — or send you into an emotional tailspin. Sensing the power of sound — and its relationship to thoughts and emotion — is central to mindfulness and to becoming a happier, more relaxed and centered person.
Today, why not try our sounds and thoughts meditation? This elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realize this — deep in your heart — then a great many of your stresses and troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes.
The Sounds and Thoughts Meditation gradually reveals the similarities between sound and thought. Both appear as if from nowhere and we have no control over their arising. They can easily trigger powerful emotions that run away with us leaving us feeling fragile and broken.
Day 9: Reclaim your life
Think back to a time in your life when things seemed less frantic, before the time when some tragedy or increase in workload took over your daily existence. Or it might be more recent than that, before the run-up to Christmas say, or perhaps a relaxing break in the summer.
Recall in as much detail as you can some of the activities that you used to do at that time. These may be things you did by yourself (reading your favourite magazines or taking time to listen to a track from a favourite piece of music, going out for walks or bike rides) or together with friends or family (from playing board games to going to the theatre).
Choose one of these activities and plan to do it today or over this weekend. It may take five minutes or five hours, it might be important or trivial, it might involve others or it could be by yourself. It is only important that it should be something that puts you back in touch with a part of your life that you had forgotten — a part of you that you may have been telling yourself was lost somehow, that you could not get back to. Don"t wait until you feel like doing it; do it anyway and see what happens. It's time to reclaim your life!
Day 10: Visit the movies
Ask a friend or family member to go with you to the movies — but this time, with a difference. Go at a set time (say 7 p.m.) and choose whatever film takes your fancy only when you get there. Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected — the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these.
Before you go, notice any thoughts that may arise such as, "I haven"t got time for pleasure," or, "What if there is nothing on that I"ll enjoy?" They undermine your enthusiasm for taking action and discourage your intention to do something that might nourish your life in important ways. Once you're inside the cinema, just forget about all this and be consumed by the film.
For more information, visit the Frantic World website and be sure to check out the book Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.