This expert-approved tip will help you find your zen this holiday season.
holiday stress
Getty / JGI/Jamie Grill
| Credit: Getty / JGI/Jamie Grill

If you're feeling burnt out, overwhelmed or just plain "over it," you're not alone. This has been an extraordinarily challenging year, and as we slide into the holiday season, we're also dodging pandemic anxiety, the potential onset of seasonal depression and the aftermath of a fraught national election.

Holiday gatherings may look different this year, but there's still a lot to contend with. In a year in which we're told to constantly "manage our stress" and "prioritize our wellness," this can seem like an unanswerable puzzle. How do you show up for yourself when you don't know what tomorrow will bring... or how to feel safe and secure today?

Although everybody's path to balance and healthfulness is unique, wellness experts and psychologists agree that mindfulness is a powerful tool for stress reduction and self care. In fact, it just may be the most important. And unlike bubble baths, Amazon shopping sprees and treat-yo-self bottles of bubbly, mindfulness is completely free and available to everyone.

What Happens to Our Bodies and Minds When We Get Stressed

We all know that stress is quantifiably Bad. Capital B. We've all read dozens of stories and listened to oodles of podcasts about how to avoid stress. But how is it really affecting us? Dr. Jonathan Abromowitz, Director of Psychology and Neuroscience studies at the University of North Carolina, and an anxiety and fear researcher, explains: "Stress, anxiety, panic, and worry are all the same thing. They're commonly known as the fight-or-flight response, which is an adrenaline response to our perception of threat or change."

When we experience stress, our bodies react in a way that prepares us for the worst — we're bracing ourselves for trauma. This translates to responses like clenched teeth, hunched shoulders, an increased heart rate, trouble sleeping and tense muscles. The change occurs in our brains, too. Dr. Abromowitz adds that when we're in fight-or-flight mode, it becomes challenging to step back from obsessive, doom-focused thoughts. And this makes sense: Focusing on the future, especially unpleasant outcomes, helps us feel ready for whatever may come. It's helpful to think of stress as a tool for helping us feel safe. But it's not the only tool in our belt.

How to Use Mindfulness to Stay in the Present and Reduce Stress

Dr. Abromowitz has an unexpected way to manage holiday (and let's face it: everyday) stress. Instead of fighting it, lean in. "When we try to fight stress and anxiety, it leads to more stress and anxiety. Think of it as playing tug of war with a big monster, and the game is rigged," he explains.

What if you gave yourself permission to quit strategizing on how you can combat stress? Instead, Dr. Abromowitz suggests we try repeating statements like, "I'm feeling stressed AND I'm having a dinner party or Zoom call."

A fight-or-flight response is a natural and private experience, and it can exist alongside your obligations, traditions, and commitments. If this concept of surrendering sounds familiar, that's not surprising. In the wellness realm, this isn't just a tool, it can be a spiritual practice or deeply personal ritual.

How to Practice Mindfulness

Wellness expert and author Alex Elle considers mindfulness to be part of a daily practice. On her Instagram account, website, and in her latest book After The Rain, she shares stories and insights about meeting yourself with kindness—exactly where you are.

Here's how Elle explains it: "Practice creates ritual. But it's less about a rigid way of doing things, and more about a free-flowing sense. And hopefully that free flow invites us into a pathway of daily rituals that become second nature." Elle gives the examples of brushing our teeth or washing our faces before bed. With enough practice, these things just happen. We do them without making a conscious choice.

Like most worthwhile things, this is challenging. "These concepts [mindfulness and presence] are sold in whimsical packages, but it's frickin' messy, and it's hard," says Elle, adding, "But I'm going to show up and be here because I want to."

So what does showing up or being there look like? How do you do mindfulness, anyway?

At its most basic, mindfulness is simply noticing and acknowledging what is. Dance and movement psychotherapist Jennifer Sterling has insight on this: "We 'do' mindfulness by employing the same techniques we apply during meditation in life—noticing what we're feeling in our bodies when interacting with people, places and things. Noticing our thoughts and the ways in which our bodily responses affect these thoughts (and vice versa). Plus, the way both of these things influence our behaviors."

Remember that fight-or-flight response? The opposite occurs when you tap into mindfulness. Sterling explains: "When we are feeling calm, the ventral vagal branch of our nervous system may be activated. This branch is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and is engaged most frequently when we are feeling safely connected to ourselves as well as the people and environment around us."

To get to this level of awareness, we have to first slice through barriers. Physically slowing down your bodily processes with deep, measured breaths is one of the easiest ways to accomplish this. You don't have to stop what you're doing to breathe more slowly and fully, and you can recommit to it anywhere, at any time. If you are in a place where you have some control over your environment—for example, your own kitchen—you can eliminate distractions by turning off the news or music, or shutting your eyes for a few moments.

And honestly? That's it. Everything that happens after that, whether it's surrendering to your current conditions, making a choice to change them or falling somewhere in-between, is a product of mindfulness. But you can't move forward without first knowing where you're at.

How Mindfulness Can Reduce Stress

The tricky part — showing up with presence and mindfulness — is also where the honey lies. Because by being present with ourselves, we're able to see more clearly what we need in both the immediate and long term.

Setting and Keeping Boundaries

Elle says, "Self choosing is huge — we know what we need a lot of the time. And that is monumental; we are conditioned to seek outside of ourselves for validation, expertise and learning. But when we turn inward, there is so much abundance."

Elle explains that that when we're aware of how we react and respond to our surroundings, we can better understand what's acceptable and what's not for us: "Setting boundaries with people we love is very challenging, but very important. It's voicing your needs, wants and concerns and what you will and will not do—in a way that is firm and rooted in love."

Just like mindfulness, setting boundaries requires regular practice. You won't get it right one hundred percent of the time, and that's not just okay—it's normal.

You can also observe where you're at and choose something else. Sterling explains: "Self-care can be proactive, rather than reactive. Instead of giving yourself permission to set boundaries, eat delicious and nourishing food, etc. around the holidays, use the rest of the year to prepare yourself for the experience (especially if it can be triggering)."

Accepting Imperfection

Dr. Abromowitz encourages us to let the frustrating things be frustrating. He offers the insight that we're often led to believe that humans shouldn't experience pain or discomfort and this simply isn't true. "Remember that your body is literally built for dealing with this stress," he says. (That's the fight-or-flight response in action!)

You can feel stressed, and deal with food anxiety, and navigate family expectations and judgments and do the things that are both important to and required of you. Try repeating this intention: "I accept that this is going to be a stressful time. And it's important that I make the most of the holidays, despite the imperfect conditions."

Being Kind to Yourself with Mindfulness

Sometimes, showing up to "do the work" can feel like an impossible task. A crucial part of mindfulness practice is being able to discern when you truly don't have the energy versus when you're running from yourself. Sometimes, we need to check out, and that's okay. If being present to yourself feels scary, unsafe, or just too hard, it's perfectly acceptable to distract yourself with that bath bomb or Netflix marathon. But, Elle reminds us to gently push ourselves when we can: "[This work is] not easy; it was not meant to be easy. It was meant to stretch us."

This year has brought a whole lot of weirdness wrapped up in a giant stress burrito, and it's likely not going to get any less bizarre. But you do have agency over your own response. The personal experience you have is up to you, and how you show up. Oh—and one more (super important) thing. Sterling reminds us: "We're human and imperfect. We're not meant to be mindful 100% of the time. Your best is more than enough."