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Happiness in the Holidays Part 1: Mindfulness and The Gift of Being Present with Yourself

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In this 2-part series, family therapist Anoushka Beh weighs in on how to look after yourself both physically and mentally during the holiday season

For all the joys and fun of the festive season, it can also be incredibly stressful, mamas! In striving to achieve the picture-perfect family experience that we see in all those beaming Christmas cards, it’s easy to focus on what we don’t have and build up unrealistic expectations of what the holidays should be like.

In sharp contrast to the festive cheer that we commonly associate with the Christmas holidays, this time of year can actually be highly stressful and even a bit of a downer for some. On average I see a 30-40% rise in the number of clients looking for support with family and stress-related issues during this season!

I believe this can be largely explained through “Cognitive Dissonance”, which, simply put, refers to the stress that we feel as a result of the difference between the experience we believe we should be having and the one that we actually are.

Family celebrating Christmas

At Christmas and New Year’s, the pressure and expectations to feel and look like we’re having fun, like everyone is connected and sharing in this time of family togetherness, and we’re thriving in all aspects of our lives – is particularly high. In fact, from a psychological perspective, I would say unrealistically high and thus a magnet for personal dissatisfaction.

As a result of these expectations and our brains’ tendency to soak up the negative, issues we may be experiencing in our family and/or personal lives can feel magnified during this time, and it’s easy to focus on what isn’t and what we don’t have rather than what is working and we can be grateful for. This is known as “the negativity bias” and can result in us feeling like we’re walking under a black cloud where we are feeling low and prone to misfortune – largely because that’s what we are choosing to focus on.

Alleviating Cognitive Dissonance and/or challenging the Negativity Bias, however, is easier said than done. But I do believe that even if everything in your life is not quite going to plan at the moment and you’ve been struggling to feel positive, you can still experience some of the joys of this festive period (and indeed all seasons). Here are my top tips for beating the holiday blues and giving yourself the gift of reconnecting with your own bliss and authentic self this season.

Let Go of What Isn’t Serving You

If you stop and consider how many times a day you think or say something negative to yourself (thus not serving your emotional well-being), you might be surprised. Examples of such thoughts might include “ Why can’t my life go the way I want…what’s wrong with me?” or “Everyone else’s life/relationships seem to be going better than mine”, or even “I’m just not where I thought I would be by now”.

Perhaps some of these even sound familiar; self-criticism and negative self-talk are common phenomena and ones we fall prey to more easily during the festive season when we pause to reflect on our lives and what we believe are their “relative” imperfections, in comparison to what they should look like.

The big downside is that this kind of self-talk increases your stress and dents your self-confidence. In fact, research has shown that when we criticise ourselves, we actually release cortisol (a stress hormone), priming our bodies and brains for fight-or-flight mode.

Learning to recognise when we are being critical of ourselves, observing those thoughts (without judgment), asking yourself where they might be coming from, and giving yourself permission to let them help break the cycle of negative self-talk. This in turn provides you with the space to be more present with what’s in front of you and the positives that space could hold.

Dive into What Is

What does your life look like right now? What do you like about it? What challenges are you facing? What little things can you express gratitude for every day? Begin to be present with the ebb and flow and current experience you are having, instead of focusing on what’s past or what could happen in the future.

Notice where you are facing stress/discomfort and, if that can’t be changed at the moment, just be ok with what is for now. Clearing the clutter of self-criticism also affords us the time to really begin to notice our lives in a mindful way, to see there are many positives to be found in the present moment.

Click here to read Part 2!

First published in 2014; updated in November 2022. Lead image sourced via Unsplash. Other images from Getty Images

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