Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Jingle Bells: Do You Have Time to Listen? Coping with Holiday Stress

Jingle Bells: Do You Have Time to Listen? Coping with Holiday Stress

Are you making a list and checking it twice, and three times, and four times? Do you have time to enjoy the holiday season? Of course not. You have too much to do and not enough time to do it. Your life is already overburdened and overstressed -- and now you're expected to buy and wrap innumerable presents, decorate like Martha Stewart, cook like Julia Child, be loving and kind like the Dalai Lama, and then you're expected to enjoy yourself!

Try a little experiment. Start thinking about all the things you have to do. Think forcefully about the problem of all those tasks and reflect upon your desperate search for extra time. Now pay attention to your body and mind. Most likely your body is tense and tight, heart starting to pound, mind beginning to race, feeling tired and overwhelmed, anxious or irritated or frustrated or all of the above. So -- happy holidays?

Remembering the November article, take a little time for humor:

*Why do they hang mistletoe at the luggage check-in counter at the airport? So you can kiss your luggage goodbye.
*Why was Santa's little helper depressed? He had low elf esteem.
*The four stages of life are: You believe in Santa Claus; You don't believe in Santa Claus; You are Santa Claus; You look like Santa Claus.

You'll have to laugh every day and that won't even be enough this holiday season. So what else can you do? Do less and do less more slowly. Now you're probably laughing at me, not with me. That's okay, too, but there is method in my madness. And there's even science in my madness. Next month for your New Year's resolution I'm going to describe research results about the problems of multitasking and the benefits of the new "slow movement."

Today I'm going to reflect with you on a few simple questions. Do you really want to enjoy the holidays? Or do you want to keep doing the same-old, same-old? If the same-old plan works for you, great. If not, reflect upon our human tendency to keep making the same mistakes in the insane hope that a miracle will occur, time will stand still and all the chores will be completed while you enjoy the holiday festivities.

If you're still reading, you may want to decide to do something different. Some people start their chores early in the fall, but it's December now and you missed your chance (as most people do.) You could prioritize your tasks, retaining only the ones you really enjoy. You can purchase some services to accomplish more and do less yourself. Family members or friends can be enlisted or even drafted for certain chores.

While you're thinking about developing a new holiday perspective, consider whether your loved ones really want you to be an obsessive-compulsive achiever with the perfect holiday meal and decorations accompanied by an aching back, mounting blood pressure, and exhaustion. No! Love means your family and friends want you to be healthy and happy, not overstressed.

We spend too much time in the fast lane, in overdrive, in road runner mode, like chickens with their heads cut off (not recommended.) Why not try the lower gear or even the off switch? We ignore the stress of the present for a fantasy future even while the future becomes the present minute by minute.

Try one task at a time with full attention to each activity instead of racing around mentally rehearsing your list of undone chores. You'll find your mind calming and your stress response attenuated without even trying. Surprise: you'll find you actually accomplish more than when you multitask. Your brain can only do one thing at a time (with the exception of some familiar overlearned background activities or autonomic responses such as breathing.) You can do something simple along with your chores, like humming holiday carols, but you can't practice singing opera while simultaneously completing complex tasks. When you understand and adapt to multitasking constraints, you can do less and actually save time.

There are other benefits of slowing down. Our habits of gulping down fast food have contributed to a new generation of obesity. We eat too fast, faster than the brain can process the satiation response, leading to overeating and weight gain. We eat too many carbohydrates, sugars and fats in a futile attempt to curb the stress response. Then we drink too much, trying to relax. The "slow movement" recommends we eat more slowly and deliberately, enjoying every mouthful. There's no sense to rush through holiday feasts.

Now consider the benefits of appreciation, gratitude and loving kindness. When you slow yourself down you can take the time to appreciate what you have, not pine for why do you don't have. Due to our frustration and stress we over-focus on problems and ignore benefits we've already achieved. Spend time learning or cultivating the skill of gratitude. Every day think of the joys and blessings we already have. If you experience difficulty with this concept or forget to do it, try a gratitude journal. You'll find depression lifting in favor of peace, calm and happiness.

Now go one step further to experience feelings of loving kindness toward others but especially to family and friends. Expressing and receiving love from family and friends will create a blessed holiday for you and your family and joy to the world.