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Reconnect With Wonder This Season

How to press pause on end-of-year stress and get clarity instead.

Key points

  • A greater percentage of Americans reported being stressed while anticipating the holidays this year than last year.
  • Many of us want to press "pause," but it's harder than ever this time of year.
  • Research shows a journaling practice even as short as four days can have positive effects on mental and physical health.

While advertisers are busy painting a picture of relaxed and joyful holiday celebrations, the reality is that many people experience increased stress during the holidays. And according to a new poll from the American Psychiatric Association (APA), this year is no exception. This month, 31 percent of Americans reported being more stressed while anticipating the holidays, a nine-point increase over last year.

The APA cites well-known factors in the zeitgeist affecting this rise in holiday stress, including financial concerns, worries about COVID-19, and familiar tension brought on by political differences. But for many, the holidays are a naturally busy, potentially difficult time no matter the external circumstances.

The pressure of societal expectations and end-of-year work obligations can be strong, as can the desire to wrap up your ambitious 2022 goals list and to plan ahead for 2023. The stories we tell ourselves can become more prominent this time of year, which means it’s more important than ever to disrupt default thought patterns and gain mental clarity.

Over the weekend, I led a group through a five-hour workshop to set their vision for 2023. The workshop created a container for clarity, allowing this group to press pause on their busy holiday season and spend time understanding what matters most.

The good news is that you don’t need a formal invitation—or even much time—to create your own container for clarity. You already have the tools to do so at your fingertips.

Find clarity through journaling.

It turns out that a blank notebook and a pen can have a surprisingly powerful effect on our psyches, and even physical well-being.

In a previous article, I wrote about professor Laura A. King’s research into how journalling impacts mental and physical health. She divided graduate students into three groups and asked them to journal for four consecutive nights on different assigned subjects.

Three weeks later, she found the students who were asked to write about either a traumatic event or future life goals were notably more optimistic toward the future than students who wrote about emotionally neutral topics during that period. Those cohorts also visited the university health center less frequently.

In a similar study, undergraduate students who had tested positive for latent Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) were asked to verbally discuss a stressful event, write about a stressful event, or write about trivial events through three weekly sessions.

Those who dealt with the stressful events verbally or in writing showed better self-esteem and adaptive coping strategies at the end of the week. They also had a significantly lower amount of EBV antibody titers in their blood, which suggests that the exercise helped strengthen their cellular immune control.

Journaling is a powerful way to press pause and find resilience—both mentally and physically. But unless you get drafted for a study, it’s unlikely anyone will press that pause button for you. Especially this time of year.

It’s time to press pause for yourself.

Take out your calendar right now and schedule time to reflect. I recommend two equally impactful options, depending on the time you have available.

  1. Schedule four consecutive nights to journal. You could also choose morning, but journaling at night allows you to explore while your unconscious is on the brink of sleep, rather than distracted by the upcoming day.
  2. Schedule a half-day at-home no-screen retreat. Turn off your computer, put your phone on “do not disturb,” and spend the time in reflection.

Once you’ve pressed pause, pull out your journal and work through this series of prompts, which is specifically chosen to help you make meaning out of the past year and gain clarity for right now—and into the future.

Reflect on the past year: Looking back, what activities, experiences, or moments from this past year have been the most meaningful and fulfilling? Why?

This question asks you to get concrete in terms of the activities to which you’ve been devoting your attention and steers you away from only thinking about achieving your goals in the abstract.

Instead of focusing on what you accomplished this past year, focus on what activities, experiences, or moments have been most meaningful and fulfilling. This focus clarifies what matters most to you, rather than fixating on the outcome of a particular goal.

The more you engage in this kind of reflection, the more likely you will be to find joy in the process of moving toward meaningful goals—and not fixating solely on the achievement of those goals.

With a variation in the language of Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, this framing helps you make the switch from “fixed planning” to “growth planning” as you begin to turn your focus to the future.

Reflect on the year to come: Now, imagine yourself a year from now. From that future vantage point, reflect on how you would like to have spent the coming year.

Imagine yourself in a place where you are satisfied with the previous year, and ask the following questions:

  • What meaningful endeavor or work have you prioritized?
  • What talents or skills have you developed that bring out the best in you?
  • What values have you put into action?
  • Who have you engaged and elevated?
  • Who have you been more of this year?
  • What have you said no more to and yes less to?

These questions invite you to get specific about the things that matter most to you, rather than getting derailed by the goals you “should” be thinking about.

As you answer these questions, get specific about the endeavors you prioritized, the exact person or cohort of people that you uplifted or elevated, and the values that you specifically put into action.

Journaling for four consecutive nights or taking a half-day at-home retreat may sound too simple when you’re caught up in the stress of the holidays, but it’s incredibly powerful.

And because it’s so simple, why not give it a try and see for yourself how pressing the pause button on the holidays impacts your mental and physical health for the coming year?


"As Holiday Season Begins, America’s Stress Rises, But Less About COVID-19." American Psychiatric Association. December 01, 2022.

Esterling, B. A., Antoni, M. H., Fletcher, M. A., Margulies, S., & Schneiderman, N. (1994). Emotional disclosure through writing or speaking modulates latent Epstein-Barr virus antibody titers. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(1), 130–140.

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