Written by: Grace Jones, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Do you sometimes feel a little overwhelmed by all the extra demands that come with celebrating Christmas? It’s traditionally a time associated with feelings of happiness, joy, and peace to the world, friends and family (even the more ‘difficult’ ones)!
But sometimes all the additional stress that comes with the holidays can lead to even the strongest of us feeling exhausted and miserable. Juggling the demands of those normal everyday tasks with all the extra things, like finishing off work projects before the holiday starts, going to Christmas parties, buying presents, going to the kid’s nativity play, carol concerts, and shopping and baking for the ‘big day’ can quickly dim the lights on anyone’s “twinkly” Christmas feeling.
Instead, you find yourself at the end of each day feeling wired but tired because you still have so much to do, and time is running out (there aren’t many windows left to open on that Advent Calendar)! How can you reduce the stress so you can enjoy the holidays to the full?
Part of the skill of resilience is being able to adapt to situations, so here are my top 5 techniques to help you manage your energy so you can cruise through Christmas without drowning in a sea of stress.
1. Make a plan!
As amazing as our brains are, we have a finite amount of energy, and lots of things make demands on our energy levels. Things like making decisions, blocking out distractions, reining in your emotions, and even staying focussed – all lead to a depletion in our limited energy level.
To give your brain a helping hand, make a plan!
Decide in advance what absolutely has to be done, and then what you’d like to do if time allows, and create two lists for each day. This will provide certainty to your brain – you won’t have to rely on remembering stuff because it’s written down – and you get that warm feeling of achievement as you tick off items once they’re done. It can also give you a sense of perspective helping you identify what’s really important. Top tip – be realistic when doing this and remember if there’s really too much to manage, delegate the smaller tasks.
2. There’s no such thing as perfect
Striving to make everything perfect for everyone else will just lead to a mountain of stress and anxiety and leave you unable to enjoy those magical moments that come when things don’t go perfectly but often lead to memories that are ‘just perfect’.
So, just for the holidays, embrace the idea of being “perfectly imperfect”. If you hear that little voice telling you that what you’re doing isn’t good enough, change it, and use it to encourage you, not put you down.
Challenge yourself to deliberately doing something less than perfectly. Give yourself permission to do something that is “good enough”, and see if anyone notices the difference. (Chances are they won’t).
We are sold the idea of the perfect Christmas by the media and marketers, which is boosted by our, often rose-tinted, childhood memories, where it snowed on Christmas day, no-one ever argued and the food was always perfect. But seeking perfection can get in the way of actually enjoying what’s happening in the now.
Have a perfectly imperfect Christmas and release the stress which comes with perfectionism.
3. Schedule ‘Me-Time’
You’re not doing anyone any favours by working relentlessly without taking a break. In fact, you’re likely to end up taking longer to do tasks and may be less accurate or perform less effectively. Why? Because of that finite amount of energy available to our brains that I mentioned earlier. It’s critical, if your brain is to be able to replenish, to ensure you give yourself downtime with minimal stimuli to allow this replenishment to happen.
While you might not have time for a full meditation session, taking a deliberate break from a task is always doable ‒ it’s the remembering to do it that can be a challenge. Try setting an alarm to remind you.
Something as simple as doing a few stretches, going for a short walk (even just around the garden or the block), takes only minutes. Making a cup of tea, day-dreaming while looking out of the window, or listening to a relaxing piece of music will all help you shift your brain out of its active state where it’s producing beta waves, and into the resting state of alpha waves.
When you’re caught up in the stress of the moment, it may be hard to think of things you could do to feel better, so make a list ahead of time – think of activities that you enjoy doing and write them down. Then schedule at least some time into your day to do something you enjoy from that list, whether that be spending time with your friends and family, going for a walk, listening to music, reading a book, or do something else that you like and that brings you joy.
Engaging in activities that require more and less focus is good for our creativity and problem-solving ability. Try scheduling regular breaks into your day – your brain will thank you!
4. Be a mover and shaker
No, I’m not referring to becoming powerful and influential, although you may already be that. I’m talking about physical exercise.
We were not designed to spend 8 hours a day sitting in front of a screen or at a desk. Our hunter gatherer ancestors had to walk 12-14 miles a day just to get enough food to survive. And our bodies (and brains) have not really evolved that much since then – we still need regular exercise if we are to perform at our best.
The benefits of exercise on the brain have been well and widely studied. Research has found that exercise:
Increases the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins (associated with the runner’s high, but not limited to just runners)
Reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline
Improves the quality of your sleep, as it helps reduce stress
Improves your self-image – as your waistline shrinks, your strength and stamina increase, helping you feel better about yourself
And there are plenty more that I haven’t listed here.
Help yourself manage those stress levels better this Christmas by making sure you don’t miss those regular workouts. And if you’re not a regular exerciser, plan to take some sort of exercise every other day, even if it’s just a brisk walk to get some pep in your step.
Perhaps the best way I know of helping reduce the feelings of stress, not just at Christmas but at any time of the year, is to pay attention to my breath.
When stressed or anxious, your breathing tends to be irregular and shallow, breathing high in the chest area and not fully inflating the lungs. This type of breathing is linked to the body’s stress response.
Your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) controls many things, like your heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, digestion and breathing.
The ANS has two parts, the Sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight/flight/freeze response, and the para-sympathetic nervous system responsible for the rest/digest response.
Both parts are necessary and always active. But when we experience something as a threat it is possible to quiet the sympathetic response and reduce associated feelings of stress and anxiety by breathing deeply and slowly.
Here’s my favourite recipe to reduce stress and immediately start to feel calmer.
This is based on breathing deeply into your tummy rather than your chest so that your tummy expands on the inhale and ‘deflates’ on the exhale. The main thing to remember is to ensure the out-breath is longer than the in-breath, because it is the elongated exhale that causes stimulation of the part of your nervous system responsible for relaxation.
If you breathe in this way, then your body will have no choice but to relax, and although it may take a few minutes, the body will respond regardless of what your mind is thinking.
The 7-11 Technique
1 inhale – to the count of 7
1 exhale – to the count of 11
Close your eyes for a moment and become aware of your breathing.
Exhale all the air from your lungs (imagine blowing out a candle)
Inhale through your nose for a slow count of 7
Hold your breath and close your eyes
Exhale slowly through your nose for a slow count of 11
Open your eyes, relax and breathe normally
Repeat if needed.
Although this may feel strange at first, with practice, you will find it very helpful if you start to feel anxious or tense. Regular relaxation will also start to inhibit the production of stress hormones in the body, so it actually becomes harder and harder to panic.
As you become more generally relaxed, the ‘baseline’ of arousal from which you are starting lowers. It actually becomes harder to get stressed!
Wishing you, and your loved ones, a happy, stress-free holiday!
Grace Jones, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Grace Jones is a former freelance IT Consultant who is very familiar with the stress of working in demanding environments. Ten years ago she chose to study hypnotherapy to better understand how our thoughts influence our behaviour, habits and results. She went on to create the RISE Resilience system, designed to help people understand and effectively manage the increasing levels of stress, anxiety and burnout that so many are struggling with in this post-COVID world. Today she is an enthusiastic speaker, trainer and breathing coach ‒ "Training your brain to work for you..."