Holidays! What memories come to your mind? Are they positive, negative, or neutral? Think beyond national celebrations such as Christmas/Hanukkah, New Year’s, Cinco de Mayo, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, July 4th, or Labor Day. Think about any event or situation that your brain tends to recall on an annual basis—or tries to avoid recalling. Holidays can also encompass any day that commemorates an important event in your life or in the life of someone who is important to you—the anniversary of a birth, death, marriage, divorce, bankruptcy, or adoption to name just a few. And any of these can have a greater impact than the more traditional holidays or seasonal events.
When I answered that question for myself it quickly became clear that while I looked forward to some holidays, I dreaded others. Family-of-origin work helped me to uncover the roots of anticipation versus dread. For example, during part of my childhood we lived on the Canadian prairies. My brother and I joked that we could expect about 3 days of hot weather each year and it was always a desperate rush to get a tan in that short space of time. Memorial Day was our signal that summer might be just around the corner. No wonder it quickly became a favorite! If the weather cooperated we could wear short sleeves and pedal pushers to the annual spring picnic.
Christmas, on the other hand, was a different story. December brought snow and more snow, often piled higher than a horse’s head. With the snow came wind in varying velocity. Sometimes it coated bare tree limbs with shimmering hoarfrost or drove ice crystals through the tiniest cracks in doorjambs and storm-window frames. And the cold. Relentless, bone-jarring, unforgiving, biting, 30-or-40-degrees-below-zero cold! Curled up with a favorite book in front of the fireplace (if we had had one) would have been one thing. Bundled in layers of protective gear and going from house to house singing Carols and requesting donations for food baskets was another. Christmas was definitely not a favorite!
Holiday stress? What memories here? The term itself is something of an oxymoron, a combination of incongruous words. According to Webster’s Dictionary the word holiday denotes a day when one is exempt from work, or a day to commemorate an event, or a period of relaxation—even a vacation. The word stress, on the other hand,refers to a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existing equilibrium. How can you enjoy a holiday and experience relaxation and pleasure if you are filled with tension and anxiety?
Unmanaged, holidays can contribute to an increase in depression, addictive behaviors, debt, overeating, weight gain, use of tranquilizers and antidepressants, attempts at self-medication through a variety of helpful (or not so helpful) options, and suicide attempts. Successfully handled, on the other hand, holidays can add spice, enjoyment, and meaning to life.
Reality is different for each person because each brain is different, as different as one’s thumbprint. Consequently, each person tends to handle holidays in his/her own style. This is influenced by a variety of factors such as your own own:
- Innate giftedness
- Personal challenges
- Level of health
This means that some approach holidays with pleasant anticipation, others with a sense of abject dread. Still others try to maintain a neutral attitude (if they can’t avoid it altogether) or accept the inevitable with a grin and bear it stance. A few approach holidays from a position of empowerment. Does that describe your approach? If the answer is yes, great! This information can validate what you’re already doing. If the answer is no, there is hope! You can give yourself several gifts, mple strategies that can save you a mint in terms of wear and tear, regrets and remorse, or if only’s. Whether or not you are prepared to handle holiday stress successfully can make all the difference in the world both to your equilibrium and overall outcome.
GIFT #1 – Take control of your expectations. It’s amazing the power that traditions and rituals can hold over us whether or not they’re functional and desirable, dysfunctional and outdated, or have completely outlived their usefulness. Learned behavioral responses to these traditions and rituals tend to continue until and unless you walk your own path and step to your own drummer. An old proverb says that those who suffer before it is necessary suffer more than is necessary. I suggest that some people suffer needlessly based on their own expectations. For example, if you expect Great Aunt Tilly to be sweet and affirming to everyone in general and you in particular, and she has exhibited the opposite behaviors for the last 75 years, your expectations will set you up for failure.
Select a holiday or event and briefly describe your history, including your anticipation and a reason. Jot down your expectations and those of others, especially when they differ from yours. Are the expectations mature, realistic, and doable? If not, tweak them as necessary. You may want to remind yourself by posting your expectations where you can see them easily.
Make a clear decision to be true to them. Avoid getting caught up in the expectations and agendas of others or getting sucked into hype and commercialism. In order to be true to your own expectations you may need to do some pre-holiday negotiations or set and implement more appropriate boundaries. An ounce of prevention before the holiday arrives is worth ten pounds of cure after it has passed!
The 20:80 Rule is shorthand for wisdom that Epictetus shared with the world more than seven centuries ago. This philosopher believed that only 20% of the impact to one’s mind and body is related to the event, while 80% is due to your perception of the event: the weight you place upon it, the importance you assign to it, and the degree to which you willingly allow it to impact your life. That’s an elegant way of saying that your expectations definitely impact outcome. In other words, you may not be able to eliminate the 20% (nor may you want to), but you can exercise a huge amount of control over the 80% simply by managing your expectations and thinking patterns more effectively. That’s the difference between efficiency (doing things correctly) and effectiveness (doing the correct things).
In life people rarely get what they deserve; often they get what they expect. Therefore, plan to be successful. You may not pull off everything in an ideal manner but you’ll likely achieve what you expect, at least to some degree. Often you can reduce the negative impact by reframing, viewing the situation in a new way. Be creative; stay flexible! Picture yourself as a tree—hang on with your roots, bend with the wind, and enjoy the breeze. As the poet Gilbran put it, most people choose their joys and sorrows long before they experience them.
GIFT #2 – Hone Your Early-Warning System. Stress is part of life. In fact, the absence of stress is death. Any change in routine can be a stressor. Under situations of stress, threat, or trauma, the brain tends to downshift. Compare this downshifting to the gears of a bicycle or automobile. When the going gets tough shifting to a lower gear can be helpful temporarily, even vital. Metaphorically a similar thing happens to the brain.
If your brain downshifts you may:
- React more automatically (reflexively, instinctually) and be resistant to change
- Follow old learned beliefs and behaviors regardless of information available in the present
- Experience a reduced ability to take environmental and internal cues into consideration
- Be less able to engage in complex intellectual tasks, especially those requiring creativity
- Have reduced ability to engage in open-ended thinking and questioning
- Develop phobias wherein specific stimuli can trigger inappropriate or exaggerated responses
- Be prevented from learning and / or generating solutions for new problems
- Fail to see interconnectedness or interrelations
- Experience altered immune system function and altered brain chemistry
Some types of stress can interfere with frontal lobe cognitive functions. This helps to explain why children who experience chronic or severe short-term stress may begin to exhibit survival or regressive behaviors. This phenomenon is not limited to children. It can happen to human beings of any age. When an experience is perceived as threatening, the brain reaches downward (in effect) to access responses/reactions that are perceived to be safer.
While downshifting is a vital survival mechanism, it’s important to return to in third gear (metaphorically) as quickly as possible. To do this you need to identify and label (bring to conscious awareness) your own stress symptoms. Stressors, stress patterns, and symptoms differ for each individual. They need to be identified before you can manage them effectively. Be honest. Avoid settling for superficiality; dig for core reasons. Create a collage of what happens to your brain and body when you’re confronted with holiday stressors. What do you look like and how do you behave? Identify your:
- Specific stressors - are they individuals, substances, thoughts, noises, locations, tasks, foods?
- Stress patterns - do you exhibit symptoms at certain times of the day/week/month/year?
- Symptoms - do you experience changes in heart rate, breathing, body temperature, energy levels, attitude?
Use this information to hone your early warning system. You can’t get out of a trap until you know you’re in one! Increase your ability to recognize your early-warning stress symptoms in a timely manner. It takes time and practice to increase our awareness and it can pay huge dividends. Over time, conscious awareness can surface about the same time as the first stress symptoms make their appearance. The knowledge you gain can enable you to implement strategies to take better care of yourself. With a bit of forethought you may be able to avoid a specific stressor altogether, or at least minimize your exposure.
GIFT #3 –Break the stress cycle quickly. At the first sign of a stress symptom break the cycle quickly—within the first 6-7 seconds if possible.The goal is to recognize your early warning system (stress symptoms) so quickly that you can break the stress cycle in a timely manner and avoid downshifting. The sooner you do this, the fewer stress symptoms you’ll likely experience. That’s why the first 6-7 seconds after recognition are so crucial.
Prevent skirmishes from escalating into war by using Herbert Benson’s Quieting Reflex, a strategy designed to counteract the first few seconds of the Fight/Flight reaction form. Fortunately, you can use the Quieting Reflex almost anytime, almost anywhere. According to Dr. Benson, there are five steps that can be accomplished in a matter of seconds:
- Smile to counter facial tension. This tiny action can stimulate the release of positive neurochemicals in your brain. Think of it as a mini anti-depressant that doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription or a trip to the local pharmacy!
- Talk to yourself. Say, “I am alert and calm.” Look for some humor in the situation. Try to find something to chuckle about, even if no one else seems to recognize the funny side of life. Laughter can trigger the brain to release neurochemicals that can help you to feel more positive.
- Breathe deeply to increase the supply of oxygen to your brain. The additional oxygen can help you to be more alert, to think more clearly, and it can help to defuse strong emotion. Stand or sit “tall” as you breathe. This action can enable you to feel more empowered. After all, who is driving your bus?
- Exhale slowly and allow your muscles to momentarily relax. Hang limp for a couple of seconds. A change is a good as a rest! If the situation in which you find yourself truly is dreadful, think of this action as positioning you in the eye of the storm. Some say it’s the safest place to be in a hurricane!
- Resume your activities. Get back into third gear if you downshifted. This is a good time to take stock of the situation. Do you need to set a personal limit or implement a boundary? Do you need to remove yourself from the situation, at least temporarily? Imagine the worst thing that can happen, decide if you can live with that, and then take appropriate action. Most of the time the worst-case scenario never actually materializes.
GIFT #4 – Use overreactions to guide personal growth. Marcus Aurelius taught that when you are upset by anything external the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it, and that you have the power to alter your estimate at any moment. His philosophy goes right along with the 20:80 Rule. When you react out of proportion to any given situation, the overreaction often relates to the past and may have little if anything to do with the current moment. In other words, the reason is never the reason.Something about the current event reminded your brain of a past event (e.g., unhealed woundedness, unrecovered loss, abuse, shaming) and it brought the force of that event to bear on the present moment.
Recollections from the past can definitely and sometimes dramatically impact the reactions you exhibit in the present. In that sense, an overreaction can be a gift of sorts, a clue to encourage you to become your own Sherlock Holmes and do some family-of-origin work. You can learn to avoid shooting the messenger or blaming the individual in the present whose actions may simply have served as a trigger for your own memory processes.
If you perceive yourself about to overreact or recognize yourself in the middle of an overreaction, stop, take a deep breath, observe, and evaluate. Ask yourself: what was there about this situation that reminded my brain of something from my past (e.g., hurtful, wounding, shaming, embarrassing)? Identifying that “something” brings it to conscious awareness and allows you the opportunity to grieve the loss and/or heal the woundedness. Recovery enables you to retain the memory of the incident without the original sting. In time the recall will lose much of its power to impact your present moment in an adverse manner.
Overreactions usually involve emotions, internal signalsthat alert us to what is going on around us and inside us. Think of emotions as magic molecules that translate information into physical reality (e.g., rapid pulse, sighing, clammy palms, unsettled stomach, perspiration, blushing, breathing changes, headache). They are designed to provide you with information and energy so you can manage a variety of situations safely and appropriately. You are much more likely to store memories in the brain when the encounter contains an emotional component. That’s probably one reason holiday memories can be so impactful, regardless of whether they’re euphoric or abysmal! Of course the long term goal is to obtain the needed information from your emotions without the overreaction!
You do yourself a disservice when you ignore emotions or pretend they don’t exist. On the other hand, it’s equally unhelpful to allow them to take over your life or to occupy the driver’s seat. They’re just signals! Use the valuable information and energy they provide to help you make functional decisions and take appropriate actions. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that the ancestor of every action is a thought. Pay attention to your thoughts and if you want to change the way you feel, change the way you think. Ask for and accept help from others as necessary. It may mean that, on occasion, the most helpful decision you can make is to avoid the situation altogether, or orchestrate it in a way that works for you.
GIFT #5 - Live a high-level-wellness lifestyle. Even a good thing taken to the extreme can be detrimental. In general, what is good for your immune system is good for your brain. Determine to take good care of your brain and body—and actually do it! Make generous deposits into your stress-prevention bankin terms of sufficient sleep and relaxation, adequate water intake, daily exercise, nutritious food, positive mindset, humor, play, and nurturing relationships (e.g., friends, co-workers, family/family-of-choice, partner, Higher Power) just to name a few. Be judicious about your intake of caffeine, sugar, and alcohol.
Living a high-level-wellness lifestyle is important all the time and even more so during a holiday. Illness, minor injuries, accidents, and depression often increase during or following holiday periods. This is often due, at least in part, to our allowing some aspect of life to get out of balance. It’s much easier for stressors to trigger illness or overreaction when you are living an unbalanced life. Treat yourself to a consistent high-level wellness lifestyle. It’s a great insurance policy and can pay you huge dividends over time!
Most people enjoy a lagniappe. I certainly do. That word first crossed my conscious awareness while attending a seminar in New Orleans. During a tour of antebellum homes the guide explained that lagniappe was a Creole term meaning something special, a little something extra, or an unexpected surprise. On that occasion, our lagniappe was a piece of Louisiana pecan praline. My mouth waters at the very thought!
I think of EnerPrime™ (the green stuff) and delta-E™ (the pink stuff) as lagniappes. These nutritional products contain powerful ingredients that can help your brain-body manage holiday stress successfully. Give yourself that edge—not only at holiday seasons but all year!
In general, human beings tend to treat others in the way they treat themselves. Therefore, genuine charity always begins at home, with the way in which you treat yourself.
Some counselors suggest that at least 50% of the problems human beings encounter are of their own making based on the way they think. Therefore, if your expectations revolve around frenetic tasks, irritable guests, frazzled nerves, and drained energy you’ll likely get just that. On the other hand, if they revolve around empowering choices that can make the occasion positive, enjoyable, energy-efficient, and memorable—you’ll likely get that.
Picture cutting your holiday stress in half just by giving yourself these five gifts plus the green and pink lagniappes. Not only are you worth it, they can help make holidays and events easier for you and for others. Implement them now and look ahead with confidence. Expect to be successful and you’re almost there!
©Arlene R. Taylor PhD, Realizations Inc