Christmas Stress – How to change your mindset at Christmas
Anyone hosting Christmas will be aware of all the jobs that need to be done, the presents and party clothes to buy, food to be ordered, the list can go on. For those having Christmas alone, or if this year is the first without a loved one, the festivities provide a complex set of emotions which can be difficult to bare.
It may be that you have a silent dread of Christmas. However, Christmas is going to happen.
What follows are a few ideas about how changing your mindset may help.
Many of the reasons why stress accumulates over Christmas is to do with thoughts and behaviours, habits and expectations.
These reasons include;
- The emphasis placed on family traditions
- Concern about how much work needs to be done to make the day successful
- Present buying; how much to spend, what to buy
- The day being a reminder of those we have lost
These may feel like a real representation of how you feel. Mindfulness encourages a different approach to how we attach a meaning to these situations.
Mindfulness allows us to treat the current moment as all there is. How much meaning do we attach to the past at the expense of the present which is where we are now?
- The emphasis placed on family traditions
It can be difficult to change habits, certainly if we frame them as ‘family traditions’. I wonder if when your ‘family tradition’ happened for the first time the intention was for it to go on past its sell by date?
Interestingly we are aware in other circumstances, such as holidays, that when we try to repeat the experience it causes greater disappointment. Can this be applied to Christmas?
Traditions may include when to put the decorations up, real tree or artificial, Christmas day menu, the family members invited, the timing of present opening, television and what film to watch.
Before the ball gets rolling why not ask yourself and those involved, why are these traditions important, and do they create a good experience. You can also ask the question is it what they represent rather than the tradition itself?
You may find you can drop one or two and everyone has a sense of relief.
- The concern about how much work needs to be done for the day to be successful
There is as much work as you want. Is it true that the more work you put in, the happier everyone is? Or is this about you, and how others might perceive you?
Thoughts can creep into our head and be believed. At Christmas there might be a little bit more organising and planning but it happens every year and we do it every year. It is often worth noticing the thoughts we have, and reminding ourselves they are thoughts. There might be the thought, ‘I won’t get it done in time’ or ‘what if the turkey is under cooked ?’ Notice what happens to your stress levels when you have these thoughts. Are they appropriate, what is the worst that can happen? Thoughts are not facts, mindfulness enables us to notice a thought and not react to it.
Take a mindful moment. Take a deep in-breath and a slower out breath, counting to five. Repeat once or twice more.
- Present buying; how much to spend, what to buy
Why are you buying presents, who for and at what cost?
Present buying is a reflection of who you are and your relationship with the recipient, as well as your personal beliefs about Christmas.
There are many ways in which we get distracted from this, especially adverts and consumerism and ‘family traditions’. The shops become full of ‘gift ideas’. Spend a little time reflecting on why you want to give as a gift. There is some truth in the statement ‘it is the thought that counts’. A mindful approach focuses your mind on the reality of Christmas, encourages you to stick to intentions meaning it is less likely you buy things spontaneously.
You may also reflect on what does receiving a gift mean to you, and is this truth based on reality. A common belief is that a person close to you will instinctively know what you want. Unfortunately, life isn’t this simple, either tell them or be prepared for anything. People are not mind readers.
- The day is a reminder of those we have lost
Anniversaries are reminders. Allowing a time in the day to acknowledge absent friends and family can be useful. You and other friends and family also represent a little of that missing person, a shared joke, or shared gene, this too can be honoured. They have not gone completely.
Mindfulness encourages us to stay in the here and now, it is this moment that is important, comparisons often bring dissatisfaction. Each Christmas will be different, enjoying it for what it is can be more rewarding than not liking it for what it isn’t.
Mindfulness at Christmas
Mindfulness involves a regular commitment to paying attention to the present moment. Christmas often draws us into the past, the past has gone, enjoy the ‘now’ as this too will soon be gone.
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The Brain and Automatic Pilot
My experience and understanding of mindfulness has led me to acknowledge the power thoughts have to manifest as reality. A thought is not reality, it is a specific activity of the brain.
Do you realise our thoughts motivate our actions and behaviours even when they are not real!
The human brain has an amazing capacity for storing, collecting, summarising and accessing data. Data as memories, and information. Memories as embodied physical experiences, as well as stories. It has so much information that it is necessary to create short cuts to frequently used experiences and behaviours. It tries to keep things tidy and organised. For example, when you clean your teeth do you actually think about and plan your hand movements, or when you get dressed are you conscious of the order you put on clothes? Our brain has made many things for us very easy, so easy we often do not fully participate in what we do. How often, on our way to work do we wonder how we got there because we had been so caught up with thoughts. In Mindfulness terms this is often called ‘automatic pilot‘.
How did thoughts and thinking become so important?
A subtle switch has happened in our development and culture. Descartes, is reported as saying I think therefore I am. Our thinking has become more important than our experiencing. Rather than being present with reality, be conscious and awake to what is happening in each moment, as would a wild animal, we are lost in the meandering synapses of our brain. It is valued in culture and society to think, ‘think before you speak’ and experiences are minimised, we are encouraged to right lists of pros and cons rather than go with ‘our gut’. We are encouraged to use our huge brain to evaluate and plan. It is thought of as helpful and beneficial. We base our knowledge on measurable, objective data.
Has our tidying system got the priorities wrong?
Whilst society encouraged and nurtured our capacity to think, and develop a logical and scientific approach to the world, we failed to recognise and adapt to the types of thinking which fed our emotional and creative abilities. A thought can create anxiety and another joy. Thoughts were not real, they can help understanding but they also take us from reality.
I may have a thought, and before I know it I have a scenario in my head about something that isn’t real. My attention has been with the evolving thought. The thought often becomes manifest in the body. Happy thoughts; my mouth will begin to smile, sad thoughts my mood drops, fearful thoughts my pulse rises. Our brain reacts to thoughts as it does reality.
Interestingly our thoughts engage with our memories of experiences and emotions. This is how our emotions can become disproportionate and anxiety and stress become disabling. We respond to a current event as if it were a repetition of an event in our memory. In a very simplified way we might respond to our manager offering constructive criticism as if it were our parent, when we were a teenager, offering advice when we don’t want it. What has happened is the brain has developed a quick access, (neural pathway) to emotions of anger or threat when we hear words that are interpreted as critical. These neural pathways become so well used we do not have time or space to evaluate whether are response is useful or even appropriate.
Making use of our Tidied Brain- MINDFULNESS
So we have a wonderfully well organised brain, with systems to access all sorts of things when we need them. What we fail to have done is pay attention to the appropriateness of the brains responses to stimuli. This is not a phenomenon of today, this has been the case for hundreds of years. At one time the responses were appropriate, the protection of the family from wild animals or other foraging beasts by physical attack was balanced and about survival. Now anger and attacking are often exhibited at the smallest of threats, the dishwasher not being emptied, being ignored, loosing car keys, the response is reactive and instantaneous.
Mindfulness training slows down this reaction. We are encouraged to be present in the moment, engage and move towards any emotions that arise, being curious towards our feelings and not reactive. We retrain the brain, the data and memories stay the same. We cultivate an ability to notice what the data is, let it inform us but not let it be absolute.
I believe this enables us to become the true self we intend to be, losing attachment to our past, and desire for an unknown future, and being present in each moment.
Emma Dunn is currently training to teach the MBSR programme
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This mindfulness novice gets serious
It is a while since my last blog on Mindfulness and a lot has happened. I have really noticed a difference in my mood, and reactivity to situations. I find I notice my mood change and feel equipped to control it before I do something I might regret. My whole family is calmer and we are able to voice our emotions better without feeling vulnerable.
I have used Headspace a lot but also some other resources available on YouTube. You might want to experiment yourself. I like meditating to chanting and more often than not do it in silence.
I have done a lot more training and reading and I want to tell you a little about Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course.
What is MBSR?
The 8-week MBSR course is a standardized course shown to improve symptoms of anxiety by using mindfulness techniques, and daily meditations over an 8 week period. It involves attending group classes for 2 hours each week and some homework. The homework increases awareness of our feelings and responses to everyday situations. We were encouraged to keep a diary, to think of an event that happened that day and reflect on how we felt physically and emotionally. The mindfulness course encourages us to get in touch with our bodies a lot more, to notice where we might feel things in our body and yoga is treated as a mediation practice. Other meditations vary from 20 minute sitting meditations, to a 45 minute body scan meditation usually done lying down. During the course there is a little taught theory but mainly discussion and sharing of experiences. I found the majority of the attendees had a little knowledge of mindfulness and were curious to see if it would benefit them.
The course has no religious or spiritual content so you don’t need to know anything before hand or have any religious beliefs.
There is a lot of research to show it works and is becoming more accessible through work, schools and the NHS. For more information The Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice has a comprehensive web site
Why did I attend this course?
I wanted to know more about Mindfulness, quite simple. I felt it had already impacted on me, increasing my self awareness . Self awareness is important in counselling and it seemed a good idea to learn to combine counselling and mindfulness. I could teach mindfulness to those clients who wanted to give it a try. After doing some googling I discovered the main training institutions that provide training and endorse the Good Practice Guidelines say all trainees should have completed this course.
What did I experience?
The course leader, Sally was lovely. We met in a quiet converted house on the outskirts of Huddersfield, and meditation equipment, mats and cushions were already there. There were always lovely smells of incense or candles to welcome us.
There were 11 in the group, mainly women, who came from all sorts of backgrounds. Some had suffered stress and anxiety for a long time, many years and had taken time off work due to its severity. Others were still managing to ‘live normally’ but their relationships were suffering as a result of short tempers and erratic behaviour. Others, like me wanted to use it in their work to help others.
We did a lot of small group work, talking to one other person but there was no expectation to share within the larger group unless you wanted to. However it became apparent really early on that the more we were prepared to share the more we learnt about how mindfulness was working for each of us.
There were 1 or 2 meditations in each class, and the ones we did in the session were the ones we were encouraged to do during the week at home. Sally would give us a recording of this to use at home.
Over the 8 weeks everyone felt different. More present in their life.
I had a great experience and would recommend it.
I am looking forward to some retreats and more training.
Pavel G. Somov- Mindful Emotional Eating; Mindfulness skills to control cravings, eat in moderation and optimize coping. (2015)
Written for both the client and the clinician this book is in 3 parts. In the first part the author describes his model of working to enable ‘Mindful Emotional Eating’ (MEE). The second is how to develop clients so they can manage situations of relapse without them becoming catastrophes, and the final part describes more specific approaches to four more common emotional eating situations.
I was disconcerted by Somov’s style and selling technique apparent in part one. He is using this book to teach other clinicians tools to help their clients, and it initially felt like a product promotion. However, with perseverance I continued.
The tools described are based on the neuroscience as well as the philosophy of Mindfulness. Mindfulness per se is not touched on, and the readers are not expected or encouraged to seek mindfulness as a way of being.
Somov describes how each of the 4-5 sessions planned for clients should run. He outlines his rationale, starting with reframing emotional eating, as either something to do mindlessly or mindfully. Identifying that we all have, by our nature as animals, strategies to preserve our own life; and emotional eating is a harm reduction strategy. Abstinence (aka dieting, and avoiding food) takes away emotional eating as a harm reduction strategy, leaving us exposed, and so diets are likely to fail.
Throughout the book he emphasises that the client’s understanding of the shift in how they approach their eating behaviours is key. Breaking down the feelings of guilt and failure which often arise when giving in to a desire to emotionally eat, and replacing then with acceptance and permission. The training is about doing emotional eating, mindfully and not mindlessly.
He provides tools to enable choice. Initially teaching relaxation, quick, bottom up relaxation, engaging physiologically with the parasympathetic nervous system, so humming or blowing out forcefully as an exhalation.
Second are skills, he describes as choice awareness training, to ‘stay awake’ for example using the wrong cutlery, different plate, wrong hand.
Thirdly, ‘craving control training’ similar to a 3-minute breath meditation although described as a river bank exercise, focusing more on the impermanence of feelings and thoughts, watching them go. During this course clients are encouraged to engage with their ‘fullness’ either physically or emotionally, and given permission to carry on if they are not ready to stop.
This second part, in my eyes, parallels the outcomes of mindfulness, creating a space for choice, appreciating the impermanence of thoughts and promoting self-awareness/acceptance.
‘Self-acceptance =motivational innocence + effort acceptance’
Or the greater our awareness of what drives us to eat combined with the belief that we do our best in the moment will increase self-acceptance, and this is likely to decrease the need to emotionally eat mindlessly.
In part 2 ‘motivational innocence’ and ‘effort acceptance’ are described more fully. One interesting idea related to dieting, or being abstinent, is that our brain is using stores of glucose to provide this self-control. The more we try to control ourselves; deny impulses, the more our brain responds by sending messages that we need something sweet, an energy fix. Giving in to a sugar fix is therefore an appropriate physiological response to the work we are doing marinating resistance, we can give ourselves permission to respond in this way without guilt, making a conscious choice to have a piece of chocolate or similar. This is an empowering shift.
He describes binge eating and how it might manifest either a result of the inability to cope emotionally-striving to feel good, or as a desire to feel numb, without emotions.
Somov is realistic about the struggle people have with relapse. He describes working collaboratively, supporting clients as they are able to apply more frequently and consistently the mindfulness techniques described in Part 1 which bring clients into the moment, encourage space between the feeling and the impulse and allow for self-acceptance, if in that moment, their effort was not what they had hoped for.
He finishes part 2 with information about Eastern traditions and philosophies about eating, including the extremes of Jainism, achieving the state of Santhara, fasting to the point of death.
Finally, Somov provides some useful interpretations to manage emotional eating for boredom and emptiness, sadness and grief, anger and fear, and stress. Helping clients understand at a fundamental level what these emotions represent and how food is providing a ‘harm reduction’ strategy, and learning to eat mindfully rather than mindlessly.
This book grew on me as I began to see how mindfulness was being used in a genuine way to help clients move from mindless eating to mindful eating. I would recommend it to health professionals wanting to engage with clients in a real, humanistic way. This book is not about losing weight. If you have an issue with emotional eating this book will help, however, agreeing with the author, I would strongly recommend having the support of a buddy.
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