I have a confession. I exploited Santa this year. My 5-year-old daughter, Sammy, was having one of those moments all parents love where she was tired and grumpy, and nothing I said was going to shake her out of it. Except .. Santa.
She is at that perfect age where reality and fantasy are intertwined, and at that moment, I knew only Santa would help me find my moment of calm. You see, I needed to get Sammy to bed so that I could find some calm at the end of a very busy day. So, I decided to use the tools I had available to me at the time! I spun a wonderful tale about how Santa was watching her through the speakers in our house. I know… not my finest parenting moment.
I could see her assessing me to see if I was calling her bluff. But she went with it, and oh, has it been working a treat. I can see her brain cells ticking over every time she has a moral dilemma, and she is confronted with “WWST” (What Would Santa Think)? This one little white lie has taken away a whole lot of daily stress as the season starts to get sillier. Long may it last.
With only a few days until Saint Nick arrives, the pressure of family, finances and work can all take its toll. When I was young, Christmas was a time of magic, mystery and joy. As an adult, the reality is a little less enchanting! Not to sound like the Christmas Grinch but managing stress over the holiday season can be tough. It takes a big effort to handle holiday anxiety and look after your mental health over this time.
Seasonal stress can creep up on the best of us. While many people may love the Christmas season, others may be dreading the holidays, battling depression, anxiety and all the pressures that go along with family and financial pressures.
Too often the Christmas anxiety we may feel is a result of our own thoughts and habits. Our mind leads our body, changing the way we breathe to get through this very full time of year.
We worry about not buying the right gift, what others will think, will we have enough money to get us through the holiday season. Our thoughts and actions trigger the fight or flight part of our autonomic nervous system because our body feels under threat. This can show up in many ways in our bodies such as poor sleep, upset stomachs, irritability, headaches, pain or fatigue. Oh and as I mentioned above our breathing changes.
No wonder it is a recipe for Christmas depression and our mental health can be strained during the silly season.
Ditch the holiday stress
We all know that the “holiday season” feels nothing like a holiday. There’s the shopping, the travel, the work parties, and the expectation (that most of the time we place on ourselves) to be everything to everyone. There are several ways to help reduce holiday stress and the impact it has on the body.
But before you do that, it’s important to understand why your body becomes stressed in the first place and how the way we think, feel, move and breathe all have an impact on those stress levels.
Our limbic system is wired alongside the stress centre in the brain, (the amygdala), So when you worry, are fearful, aggressive or sad you can activate your body’s stress response. Which surprise, surprise makes you breathe faster.
Because Christmas is one of the biggest events of the year, it can also be one of the most emotional events of the year. It can be the first joyful year you share the magic of Christmas with your child, or it can be the first heartbreaking time you spend Christmas far away from family.
Holiday anxiety symptoms
So how does Christmas stress take its toll on our body? The symptoms of holiday anxiety and depression can be similar to those experienced from breathing dysfunctions and hyperventilation syndrome. Poor sleep and digestion, neck and back pain, headaches, busy head, anxiety, low mood, fatigue are just a few symptoms you may experience as a result of altered breathing.
To understand how we get ourselves in this state, we need to understand our primitive stress response. In prehistoric days, our stress response was triggered when faced with a life or death situation – like being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger. Today there are no longer wild beasts chasing us, but our body doesn’t differentiate between a hungry tiger and the worries of financial burdens or a busy holiday schedule.
How do we keep calm and love Christmas?
When it comes to feeling less stress the research has shown one of the best things you can do is label your emotions. By figuring out your triggers in your life you end up changing the neurochemistry in your brain, instead of activating your amygdala (your fear control centre) and you activate your prefrontal cortex diminishing your emotional reactivity (i.e. making you stressless).
Common Christmas stressors are:
Family: Stress with family can range from gathering together, to the dramas that unfold, to the toxic relationships that have a magnifying glass placed over them this time of year.
Grief: Ah that ugly feeling of grief that can hit you when you least expect it. The holidays can be a major trigger for grief especially the first time a loved one is not there. How you honour the lost love over this time will be unique for all.
Grief can also be from a change in life circumstances. For me, this is a big one as I move into the second Christmas that my ex-husband and I are separated. I feel for my children for the loss of the traditional family unit but also know they are loved and cherished by so many around them. It does still hurt me and I notice how it boils its way to the surface the two weeks before the holidays.
Financial: We can all put up great images about how rosy our life looks on the outside and yet often be living well beyond our means. This time of year we can push to the max buying items we can’t afford, travelling or having expenses that far exceed our income.
Work: Where to start with work stress! There are many layers with work stress that impact our Christmas anxiety. Deadlines, loss of work, fatigue and long hours can all take its toll on our body and mind.
Food and Alcohol: Who doesn’t love to relax and enjoy good food and drink over the holiday time? For some people, this can be a huge trigger, especially if struggling with addiction and weight gain.
Loneliness: How easy it is to be lonely in a crowd. Not having family around, not being supported and not having the human connections that we crave as human beings can further trigger Christmas depression.
Keep calm and love your family
I am the first to admit that sometimes being around my family can trigger me. As my sister, Sarah has described me I can be a “prickly pear” when not feeling at my sparkly best! Don’t get me wrong, I love my family to bits and they are an awesome bunch of weirdo’s (I just want to see how many of my family actually read my blogs).
Never the less after going through a divorce and being more conscious of what support and also space I need around the holidays, I have found what I need to be more of a “fuzzy peach” during the silly season. The tips I share with you today while they might seem small can all add up to reduce the impact stress can have allowing you to have a great holiday.
Let me share with you some of my favourite ways to help navigate the holiday shopping stress and Christmas dramas.
“When I was young, Christmas was a time of magic, mystery and joy. As an adult, the reality is a little less enchanting! “
Breathing space over the holidays
What we think about, which flows on to how we feel, has a big impact on our breathing. Breathing is the only part of our autonomic nervous system, which works in the background to find balance in our body, and is under both conscious and unconscious control. This means that if you change the way you breathe you can return your body back to calm.
Your holiday stress management training starts now
What I love about the body and brain is that it is easily adaptable and influenced. During the holidays why not try influencing your body for the better. I have never forgotten a quote I heard years ago, “You are a result of your past thought and actions”. So if you want to change the way you feel, think and move in the future, you need to start now and take action.
- Gifts to reduce stress
There are plenty of self-help tools currently available that will help you reduce anxiety and stress. It just goes to show how many people there are who suffer from stress. One of my favourite tools for stress relief is Spire. This revolutionary device is like having me, a breathing coach, with you all day and reminding you to slow your breathing and pause.
In periods of high stress and pressure, like the holiday season, my clients often need a bit of extra support. Guided mindfulness or meditation apps are great tools to help find holiday calm. Just 10 minutes at night before you go to bed can help improve sleep quality. My personal favourites are Smiling Mind and Calm. You can find them both in the app store for FREE.
Massage is a wonderful gift for a loved one to help them relax and activate the calm part of their nervous system. You can buy them a voucher from a great therapist or how about buying some massage oil and offering to give them the massage yourself. Kindness and touch go a long way to reducing the stress hormones in the body.
If stress, grief, anxiety and depression are building up over the holiday time, then it is crucial that you address how you are breathing. Your breathing patterns directly link to your emotions and the great news is you can retrain the way you think (top-down regulation) and the way you breathe (bottom-up regulation).
The perfect solution to destress is my 30-day online breathing course, The Big Exhale. The beauty of this course is it deals with the root cause of stress, and looks at your triggers. Whether it is grief, illness, sleep, injury or mental health, The Big Exhale exercises for better breathing course can make a big impact on your health. Why not try it these holidays and take the opportunity to nurture yourself. It only takes 5 to 15 minutes a day, can be done from your home and is both video-based and practical. Sign up today, and you get access for a full 12 months.
1. Christmas Giving – Love your family and friends
In a time when we are more digitally connected than we have ever been, we are seeing a crisis of disconnection. This Christmas, take the time to look inside and outside your family circle and see if anyone around you is hurting. The practice of giving takes you out of your ego and into gratitude. When you are stressed, feeling low or tired, giving can be difficult. Commit to giving others your time, your kindness or a gift, and you will soon reap benefits for yourself.
My challenge to you is to look up from your device and see who around you is hungry for connection. Mental illness doesn’t go away just because it’s Christmas.
For me, it is the small things that I do to help others that help me. Teaching my children to donate to the food bank each time we are at the supermarket gives me the opportunity to explain to them that we are lucky to have what we have and that we can always support others.
What will you give this holiday time to make an impact in another person’s life?
2. Practice Christmas gratitude
Sometimes we have to work harder to find joy over the Christmas period, especially when it has been a busy or challenging year. One of the best ways to change grief and sadness into joy is to create a new tradition. Whether it is for you personally or for the people you share your holidays with, finding something with meaning will make you all feel good.
It can be anything from going for a hike on Christmas day to create happy hormones like dopamine, or starting a practice of gratitude at the start of your family meal. Share three things that you are grateful for and see how your body shifts into joy. You could take time out for yourself and do something creative like drawing, painting or working with tools. Find your joy by using your body in a way that feels right for you.
- Holiday stress relief – mindful communication with friends and family
Holiday stress tends to build up slowly over time until the only way we know how to deal with it is to release the pressure with a big emotional explosion. The best way to avoid the pressure build-up is to release little bits of tension, so it doesn’t hit boiling point while you’re doing the Christmas shopping!
Our emotions affect our breathing, and our breathing affects our emotions. By talking to a close friend or someone you can trust about how you are feeling, you can relieve a lot of the holiday pressure. Christmas may mean extra pressure like newly blended families, grief over a recent loss or other personal crises. You need to talk early and get the right people around you. We are all human, and we all go through tough times. By sharing the load we can all grow and help each other find holiday calm.
- Pace yourself and take Christmas brain breaks
This stress tip covers all matter of sins. Food, drink or whatever your poison may be, look at what you are doing over the holidays (without judging!) and decide if it is truly nurturing your body and mind or depleting it.
Why not make the most of the break in routine and try something new that will help your body manage stress over the holiday season, rather than make it more challenging. Take time to stop, pause and breathe whenever you can and allow yourself a moment of calm in your busy day,
“Have yourself a merry anti-stress Christmas .” #taketimetimeout #newtradition
Have yourself a merry anti-stress Christmas
Whatever your holiday plans I encourage you to look at your thoughts, feelings and actions over this time. You have the power to create an anti-stress Christmas for you and those around you. Be kind to yourself and then to others.Above all, work on being in the moment and appreciating all the good that is around you. It is a simple way to shift you out of grief and sadness even in the toughest of times.
Do you want to ditch stress over the holidays? Why not give the gift of holiday calm? Purchase The Big Exhalebefore the 25th of December and receive $20 off the full course (includes 12-month access) when you use the coupon code xmas at check out.
Why not share the gift of calm with your family and friends this holiday time?
Emma Ferris is known as a breathing guru and is the creator of The Big Exhale 30 day breathing course. She’s also called wellness nut, wellness architect, entrepreneur and a woman on a mission. Drawing on a 12-year career in physiotherapy, as well as expertise in pilates, acupuncture and stress management, Emma Ferris is teaching the world to find their calm and stress less at The Breath Effect.