It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to slowly ease into the holidays and enjoy it like I did before entering university, decorating the Christmas tree, sipping cinnamon spiced lattes, listening to Christmas music, taking my time with Christmas shopping and baking and acting in a holiday play.
However, for most people, the holidays are still a stressful time. The often commercial, faux-cheeriness of the season masks an underlying anxiety about being in close quarters with family, buying the perfect present, financial difficulties and all the work that must be done to meet the ever-increasing expectations we place upon ourselves at this time of year.
The holidays, once intended to celebrate the yin time of year, rejoicing in spirituality, family, food, gratitude, giving and reflection of the year past, have been absorbed by our yang society, transforming into a flurry of packed schedules, work parties, shopping, stress, perfection and performance. To reclaim the yin, it’s important to move slowly, taking the time to be quiet, reflective and present. Here are some ways to slow down the fast pace and take care of ourselves, allowing ourselves to thoroughly enjoy this time of year.
1) Walk in nature: Take a break with the family to bundle up and head outside into the crisp coolness to participate in some Shinrin-yoku, the Japanese word for “forest bathing.” This practice has shown to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone, and increase the happiness hormones, serotonin and dopamine. It’s a fabulous way to get exercise, slow down and feel open and present. The sounds and sights of nature are breath-taking at this time of year so, rather than focusing on the cold, take the time to thoroughly experience the beauty of winter.
2) Cuddle a cute animal: Lower blood pressure, decrease pain and stress and increase more feel-good hormones by relaxing with a family pet. If you don’t have a pet of your own, volunteer to take a friend’s for a walk, or head over to a dog park. Animals are naturally balanced and focused on the present and being around them helps to centre us as well. There is nothing like relaxing in front of the fire with a dog or cat to help you slow your heart-rate and racing thoughts and remind you to clear your mind, steady your breathing and take your time.
3) Make a cup of tea: Tea is one of my favourite medicines. Not only can you use herbs with relaxing medicinal properties like chamomile, passionflower, lemon balm and skullcap, the very act of making and enjoying tea helps calm our minds. This act of self-care reminds us to take care of ourselves during this busy season. Drink tea while reading a book, listening to soft music, watching the fire or gazing at the snow falling outside. With each sip, let yourself relax into softness.
4) Epsom salt bath: For me, there is nothing like relaxing in a warm bath to antidote the tightening of muscles caused by cold weather and mental tension. Magnesium sulphate, or epsom salts, helps to relax muscles by pulling inflammatory metabolic by-products, like lactic acid, from muscle tissue. Beyond the physical, having a warm bath is a symbolic act of self-care. Closing your eyes, and the bathroom door, and shutting out the world for half an hour helps to reset mood and energy and re-establish the habit of taking care of yourself.
5) Breathing exercises: If things are getting too hectic, taking 5-10 minutes to steady breathing and increase oxygenation can help us feel clearer and more energized, while relaxing muscles, lowering blood pressure and cortisol. I like the simple “4-7-8 Breath” exercise taught to me in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class. Sit, stand or lie down in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Inhale into the belly for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds and then exhale slowly for 8 seconds. Repeat for 5-10 breaths, then slowly open your eyes and try to keep that feeling of stillness with your for the rest of your day.
6) Practice giving and gratitude: I find it unfortunate that the feelings of gratitude and giving we typically associate with the holidays have been displaced by the need to acquire things. When we focus on the have-nots, we turn our gaze to the future’s anxieties and lose our grounding in the present. Being thankful for what we have helps increase feelings of well-being and decreases stress and anxiety. Taking the time each day to journal the things you are grateful for this holiday season, or helping others by volunteering for charities or holiday soup kitchens, can help centre you in the present and increase your feelings of satisfaction as you become more mindful of your blessings.