It’s early December and that means we’re about to crash straight into the holiday season. As the shortest days of the year approach, many of us are anticipating gluttonous feasting, exchanging gifts, enjoying the company of family and friends, and celebrating everything we have to be grateful for this year. Others are also anxious about the hectic schedule, financial strain, or encountering certain crazy relatives (most families have at least one).
Chronic illness can complicate the holiday season further. Some people with chronic conditions feel like their family members don’t fully understand their limitations. Even the pressure to “just stay a little bit longer” or “pop by for a short visit” can cause us to push through when we really need to pull back – often resulting in a flare later on. If there are underlying conflicts with family members or friends, then spending a lot of time together attempting forced cheerfulness can also add stress. Constant fatigue, brain fog, food intolerances, and pain can make frequent, large get-togethers focused on eating quite challenging, to say the least! Somehow we’re supposed to do it all without crashing from fatigue, badly flaring, or getting a virus.
The consequence of having too much to do and too little time to do it is stress. The symptoms of emotional and cognitive overload that accompany stress worsen the chronic illness and are a real challenge to manage this time of year. Emotional stress symptoms include irritability, anxiety, and low mood. Cognitive overload results in having trouble remembering things, difficulty concentrating, indecisiveness, and constantly ruminating on what’s bothering you. If you find yourself feeling this way during the month of December, you’re not alone! My question this time of year is: how do I get through all of the challenges in order to be able to enjoy the holiday season?
I’ve come across many helpful posts challenges written by bloggers with chronic illnesses explaining how we can pace ourselves through the holidays, delegate responsibilities, adjust expectations and mitigate potential challenges. I’d like to contribute one more strategy for surviving the holiday season with a chronic illness – mindfulness.
I’m not talking about anything new-age, religious, or fringe. Mindfulness is a practical, evidence-based approach to managing stress and reducing the symptoms of chronic illness. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field of mind-body medicine, mindfulness means “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Meditation is a way to practice being mindfully present. During meditation, the aim is to focus our attention by concentrating on a particular object, like breathing, scanning the body, or repeating a mantra. Inevitably, we lose focus and become distracted by thoughts, worries, plans, or emotions. When we realize this has happened, we gently bring our awareness back to the present moment – this breath, this moment.
“That sounds great,” you might say, “but the last thing I have time for is learning mindfulness meditation right now.” Do you have five minutes a day to watch television? Then you have five minutes to sit and listen to guided mindfulness practice. Just sit. Just breathe. Just listen. That’s it. Here are three easy mindfulness practices that have helped me to not only survive the holiday season but get the most out of it.
One of the first casualties of a hectic schedule is time to process your experiences. The brain needs rest so that it can effectively take in information, process emotions, and make good decisions. Otherwise, we can become mentally and emotionally overloaded by trying to push through the stress and get on to the next thing. Mindfulness is a switch from the ‘doing mode’ (thinking, planning, worrying, shopping, baking, visiting… you get the idea) to the ‘being mode’ (think watching a sunset or savoring the taste of a great meal). Taking a few mindful breaks throughout the day gives us the mental rest we need to prevent becoming overwhelmed.
A mindful break can be as little as 1 minute but is usually 3 to 5 minutes. It involves intentionally shifting your attention to just sitting and breathing in the present moment. This year I’m planning on incorporating these pauses into my day. If I’m visiting, I might take a few extra minutes in the washroom just to breathe. Even if there’s nothing I need to do on a particular day, mindful breaks can still help reduce anxiety about future tasks and plans I’m worried about, by bringing me back to the present. The Free Mindfulness Project offers a number of excellent guided mindful pause meditations to download (as well as longer mindfulness meditations).
One of my favorite meditation teachers finishes his guided mindful break meditation by asking “what’s the next best thing you can do for yourself right now?” Sometimes you can’t solve all your future worries but you can do something to improve things right now, such as making a cup of tea or delegating a task.
Every year I face a battle with my own expectations about what the holidays should be like. It’s very easy to internalize expectations about what you ought to be able to do and feel guilty if you can’t live up to those self-imposed standards. Maybe you wish you could give your kids the perfect Christmas morning, go to every holiday party you’re invited to, or cook the perfect traditional meal for your entire extended family. When you have to cut back on your activities, it can be hard to feel like you’re letting down some of the people you care about most in order to look after your health.
Unrealistic expectations, whether internalized or externalized, only cause unnecessary stress. Instead of trying to have a holiday worthy of a Lifetime movie, what if we refocus our energy on putting love, kindness, gratitude, and giving at the center of our celebrations? These practices can be incorporated into traditional family celebrations – like this idea of having each family member dedicating an ornament to something they are grateful for before hanging it on the tree.
But how do you stay in the spirit of the season despite the pressure of expectations? The ‘loving-kindness meditation’ can help you deepen compassion, and increase your feeling of connectedness to the people around you. In the guided meditation, we are invited to focus on our feelings of love and compassion for people we are close to by repeating wishes for their health, happiness, and well-being (“May they be happy, may they be healthy, may they be free from suffering, may they be peaceful”). Then, we extend those feelings to strangers and people we may have difficult relationships with. Finally, we practice extending love and kindness to ourselves – a powerful and important component of the practice, especially if we are feeling guilt over our limitations. Here is an additional guided practice, along with the script, from Mindful Magazine.
Are you more likely to remember compliments or criticism? If you’re like most people, you pick the latter. That is because the human brain has a built-in “negativity bias”, which allows us to learn from and protect ourselves from bad experiences. Unfortunately, it can also make us stressed and anxious. During December, I often spend most of my time worrying about how I will make it through all my plans. Once it’s over, I sometimes feel like I’ve missed out on enjoying the best moments because I was worried about the next thing. One way to rewire your brain so that it takes positive experiences into account, along with the negative, is to be intentional about what Rick Hanson calls “taking in the good”. This is akin to the old saying to “stop and smell the roses”. But exactly how do you go about making this a habit?
The first step is to be mindful of positive moments (to notice the roses) – the warmth of a good fire, sharing a laugh with loved ones, the taste of turkey and mashed potatoes. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help with this part, but you can also just start with the intention to take in the good today. Second, pause for 20-30 seconds and focus your attention on savoring the experience, instead of moving on to the next thing. Then, let the positive experience sink into you. You can do this by visualizing a warm feeling spreading through your torso or by mentally recognizing that by doing this exercise you’re rewiring your brain to tilt towards positive experiences.
If you do this several times a day, you can change the neural pathways in your brain so that positive experiences are ‘registered’ more in your overall outlook on the day. This practice has been really helpful for my mental and emotional health while I deal with the challenges of chronic illness. Sometimes symptoms get in the way no matter how much pacing or stress management we practice. This can be disappointing. But I have found that taking in the good and enjoying the small moments really helps me to balance out the disappointments. One year I was too sick to leave home and had to miss Christmas Day with my family, but eating homemade cookies at home, with the tree lit up while watching a Christmas movie was still a nice, cozy evening.
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