Hacks for the Holidaze

If you, like me, are a sensitive sort prone to getting off-kilter this time of year (whether that’s about year-end goals, consumption of food/drink/stuff/media, family drama, past losses, expectations on the part of yourself/family/others, or any other cluster)… I give you five hard-won holiday hacks. These are good in any stressful time but especially useful this time of year.

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“Stress Elf” Photo by Dylan Tweney, via Flickr Creative Commons

  1. Switch off the sirens. Your nervous system is most likely on alarm overload, like a firetruck siren that keeps on shrieking long after the six-alarm fire is out. In the modern world, this is a widespread issue that leads to adrenal burnout—and that’s why it’s so important to develop calming practices. This video shows some calming practices derived from the energy medicine tools of Donna Eden, but you can also simply take deep slow breaths, note your surroundings and safety, come into your senses, place your hand on your heart/belly/cheek and send your nervous system some love. Especially helpful: Leaning against a tree while doing any combination of these.
  2. Strenuously commit to missing out. I skip holiday parties if my body says “no.” I tune out most media, and turn down the noise of social media in particular. I know I miss out on certain things. Whole categories of pop culture and current events pass me by. I enjoy airplane mode from time to time, even when not inflight. I figure I can take a little trip to the insides of me. This tends to give me more energy than endlessly scrolling, which is what can happen if I’m tired.
  3. Reframe your emo-pictures. This tip comes by way of creativity coach Jen Louden, who suggests renaming unwanted feeling states. The goal is not to bypass the uncomfortable emotions, but to experiment with widening out in possibility. I tried it and found that I could reframe my anxiety as alertness, my sadness as soulfulness, and my judgment (sometimes) as clarity about my boundaries. An interesting tool to play with!
  4. Give yourself a big gift. Do what you want, only and exactly what you want, for a few hours. If you worry that this is selfish, your family will hate you, etc., consider the findings of Adam Grant, a generosity researcher: People give more over the long term when they keep their own goals sacrosanct. To my mind, if I avoid burnout by giving myself this gift…I’ll be more resilient, more loving, more present, and more generous over the long haul.
  5. Watch the birdie(s). By this I basically mean: watch your emotions and sensations come and go. (We just got a bird feeder and I’ve been watching the birds come and go, like my internal states.) I’ve also heard this skill taught in terms of identifying with sky vs. weather or (Jen Louden again) observing fish in an imaginary aquarium without getting in the tank.

However we can, as soon as we remember, the idea is to separate identity from emotional state. A friend who intensively practices mindfulness will say to herself, “sadness is present in my awareness,” to put distance between her essential self and the emotion. Isn’t that so much lighter than “I am depressed” or “my life is miserable”? It’s a ninja move designed to decrease reactivity. Bottom line: The more we can observe ourselves with compassion and curiosity, the more we are able to pause in the presence of strife, confusion, or (in my case) that fudgy brownie that will jack up the nervous system for sure.

Bonus hacker tip: Look for the nourishment. When deciding what to give (yourself or others) or how to spend your time or what to consume, discern with your body what feels truly nourishing to you.

My earlier post, Tips for the Anxiety-Prone, may help too. What about you—what hacks do you have to share for holiday time?

A Little Time-out

Being human is feeling all kinds of stuff we’d rather not. It’s easy to run away from “bad” feelings, to try to Facebook / eat / drink them away. Or we might get stuck in a trough, and end up thinking the feeling is who we are. “I am an anxious/depressed/angry person.”

But how about experimenting with falling into whatever “bad feeling” arises? It can be interesting to explore and befriend an emotional state, without attaching to it.

I briefly befriended a tiny unhappy girl in pink snow boots last week, and later I realized the parallels. Small girl, small inner feeling. (My own feeling states usually start out small, and if I notice and tend to them early enough in their unfolding, I can often shift them before they get big.)

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Photo by Gunnar Sigurður Zoega Guðmundsson, via Flickr Commons

The girl was one of about 10 children in a child care group I assisted for a short time. (How I, the easily overstimulated introvert, ended up in this unaccustomed space is another story!) This girl ran and laughed with the bigger boys for a while, but then I noticed she had withdrawn. Her forehead had gone all puckery.

Say this little girl is the feeling, hankering for attention. The first thing is simply to notice the feeling arise. And it might not be obvious in the noise and clang of life. Maybe it’s just a furrowed forehead or the absence of a smile or the sudden need to pull back.

I could relate, as a formerly small and often overwhelmed girl myself. So I went and sat with her.

The second thing is to go and be with the feeling. It’s not helpful to chide the little girl for withdrawing, or feed her food she doesn’t need, or cajole her into playing again before she’s ready. But we can go and sit. Be in solidarity.

I saw that she tugged at the Velcro of her boots. So I helped her take them off. The day was warm. Her feet had gotten hot.

So that’s another thing: to address physical discomfort, or bring some air to something constricted. It wouldn’t do to holler at the little girl for having those boots on in the first place, or to ignore her discomfort, or to tell her to just keep marching.

That’s pretty much my process, not that I always do it. (I do my share of eating-for-distraction!) Basically: Paying attention, opening some space. I find that just by focusing in on what hurts, I can get valuable information. Not only that, but just attending with kindness is often enough to soften constrictions and transform pain.

By the way, I did play with the girl then. I tried different silly things to see what would catch her fancy. She just looked at me all sad-eyed. What finally got some movement from her was a beanbag toss game. Sitting next to her, I grabbed a bowl and beanbags and threw them in at very close range. Then gave them to her. She basically set them in the bowl one by one, very tentatively. I cheered each one. A tiny smile. (I felt like such a genius at this point, as I am more used to playing with animals than children!) We kept it up, with me moving the bowl around and acting goofy. She finally leaned in close to grab the bowl in one hand and hold it still. By this time she was laughing and I felt like I’d won the lottery, seeing those eensy teeth again, hearing that infectious sound.

So to continue the analogy…Maybe starting a tiny “job”—after sitting with the feeling and bringing comfort—is a way back from feeling stuck. Some easy thing that can be built upon, that can end up feeling like play.

After a while, she scampered off to play with the boys some more. (Me: “My work is done.”)

No matter how we deal with our emotions, the bottom line is: There’s nothing wrong with a little time-out to care for a tender underbelly.