As much as I love this time of year—its family gatherings and festivities—as the season progresses I inevitably feel overwhelmed by the added obligations. My shoulders seize up, my blood pressure rises, I get snappy with my spouse and kids (not to mention the poor checkout guy), and I start to need pie or chocolate for comfort.
Sound familiar? It's times like these that make stress-busting strategies a necessity. This year, I got proactive and consulted two life coaches. The pressures in my life weren't going anywhere, so what could I do to maintain a positive outlook and an even keel? The simple mental exercises below actually can stop stress from crashing your party—and even enhance the joy you feel.
Cultivate your bliss
"Happy memories are made from the emotional fabric of our time together, not the physical details like having a clean house, making the perfect meal, or throwing the perfect party," says Sue Frederick, a Boulder, Colorado-based life coach and author of Dancing at Your Desk (Frederick Malowany, 2004). If pressures to please everyone else are dragging you down, Frederick recommends doing at least three things every day that make you happy. "It doesn't have to be anything really big," she says. "It can be as simple as swimming laps or enjoying a cup of your favorite tea." Boosting your own sense of well-being will give you more positive, joyful energy—"the best gift you can give your family and friends."
"So your mother-in-law is talking nonstop and driving you crazy. Take a moment to find something about the moment that you can be grateful for," says Frederick. Focusing on what you feel is wrong with your loved ones or with your circumstances only makes it worse, she says. Instead, shift your attention to the positive by cultivating gratitude. "For example, if you have a loving relationship with your partner, focus on that instead of what he forgot to pick up at the store. Or perhaps your mother-in-law was the most helpful person in your life after your children were born." Setting aside five minutes every day to acknowledge what you are grateful for will also help invite more happiness when life feels strained or hectic.
Visualize the positive
"Most of us spend too much time imagining what we don't want to happen," says Frederick. But that just compounds the stress. Instead, she suggests, carve at least ten minutes a day to clear your mind and imagine what you do want to happen.
Try this basic meditation: Sit in a comfortable location, free of major distractions. "Just do what feels right to you; anything that quiets your mind," says Frederick. "You'll know when that happens because you'll feel an almost physical shift, when the internal chatter starts getting dimmer and dimmer." Once you've relaxed in that space for a few moments, begin to picture your life exactly as you'd like it to be. (Need some prompts for this month? Frederick recommends "home-cooked meals that delight your guests, laughter and warm feelings between family members, and a general sense of peace and well-being.") If you have a hard time imagining what you want on a larger level—such as increased joy—start with the little things, such as a stress-free trip to the grocery store, Frederick says.
Diffuse with compassion
"Reconnecting with family at this time of year can bring us deep joy but also deep pain," acknowledges Mark Thornton, a New York–based meditation coach and author of Meditation in a New York Minute (Sounds True, 2006), who teaches meditation and stress-management to corporate big wigs at companies such as the New York Times and the Harvard Law School. "You sit down to dinner and Aunt Mary is there, still criticizing you about something," and when old issues get triggered, says Thornton, "we go from gratitude to grief really quickly."
So, is it possible to circumvent these all-too-familiar patterns? Yes, says Thornton, but it'll take a little effort on your part. The first step to diffusing unpleasant emotions around any situation (be it with family or a demanding boss) is to "realize beforehand that these situations can be stressful, and build awareness around your automatic responses, the reactivity," he says. This takes some practice, he admits. Next, examine your feelings—not to judge or push them away, just to notice them fully. "When you experience your own feelings, truly experience them, that's the best way to begin to understand the feelings of others, to have compassion."
Life's a sitcom, really
Another important tool is the ability to maintain a sense of humor about whatever is triggering your emotions, says Thornton. "Rather than try to change anybody, just see them for who they are. Say to yourself ‘Aunt Mary … there she goes again!' See her as a character in a comedy show. It becomes rather amusing!"
Frederick agrees: "When we're faced with a challenging moment, we can choose to focus on it as a problem," she says, "or we can take a moment to see what's funny about the situation." Your outlook will instantly improve if you take the latter approach, she says.
This sense of humor can be applied to yourself, too, says Frederick. Whenever you feel yourself sliding into "pitiful thinking"—or thinking at the negative, pessimistic, grumpy end of the spectrum—Frederick recommends the following exercise: Give your "pitiful self" a name. "Mine is ‘Sadie,' and she thinks that life is a big tragedy. She likes to stay in bed with the covers up and watch Out of Africa. When my family identifies Sadie around, they'll say ‘Oh no, Sadie's here!' and then we can laugh about it. It helps me know that I can change."
Senior editor Radha Marcum replenishes joy by skiing, reading poetry, and snuggling with her husband and two children.