December 15, 2017

Overcoming Holiday Angst with Tidings of Mindfulness

December 15, 2017

Holidays can be stressful, especially for women, who tend to take charge of the holiday planning.

A major study several years ago by the American Psychological Association found that women (44 percent) are more likely than men (31 percent) to report an increase of stress during the holiday season.

The primary causes of stress were lack of time, lack of money and pressure to give or get gifts. Not surprisingly, women tend to have a harder time relaxing during the holidays and are more likely to fall into bad habits, like turning to food for comfort.

With Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday behind us, Hanukkah beginning, and Christmas on the horizon, baking, shopping and gift wrapping continue. To help manage those and other holiday-related stressors, Dr. Ellen Kaufman, who teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), offers tips to help you “breathe through” the holiday season.

Be in the “right now”

Mindfulness is a contemplative practice characterized by repeatedly and gently bringing the mind back to the present moment, says Kaufman, who has used MBSR to manage chronic pain since an accident in 1994 left her unable to work as an obstetrician/gynecologist. That is where the mind is happiest and calmest, she says. Meditation techniques have been developed in many religious and contemplative traditions, and these techniques have widely been seen as increasing one’s sense of well-being.

Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University did a study of 5,000 people which led them to conclude that our minds are focused on things other than the present about 50 percent of the time. We spend a large part of our mental life “reviewing the past, rehearsing the future, or being lost in rumination — either spinning in thoughts or caught up in repetitive thought patterns,” says Kaufman.

Neuroscientists have identified interconnected areas of the brain — called the default mode network (DMN) — associated with this type of rumination. More activity in that network is associated with negative emotion and depression. Studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness can decrease the DMN’s activity, say Daniel S. Barron and Dr. Stephanie Yarnell in their article, “Default Mode Network: The Basics for Psychiatrists.”

Increasing mindfulness is associated with decreased activity in the DMN and accompanying increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with more positive emotions, according to Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in his article, “Psychosomatic Medicine.”

Recognize mind habits

Putting yourself in the moment can be more difficult than it sounds as we are all faced with a multitude of distractions — both internal and external.

Kaufman notes that the mind can have a “mind of its own” which can create difficulties, misconceptions and traps. A formal mindfulness practice teaches us to recognize and detach from unhealthy mind habits, develop the capacity to repeatedly bring the mind back to the present, and appreciate more deeply the simple pleasure of being alive and connected with others.

Breathe mindfully

Of course, we all know how to breathe, but do we know how to connect with the breath in a way that brings us back into this moment? Kaufman describes breathing mindfully as a simple yet powerful approach that awakens us from being lost in thought — a practice that offers many benefits including decreased heart rate and increased concentration.

“Dropping into the breath” or noticing the physical sensations of the breath, draws the mind away from repetitive and unhealthy habits of worry, regret and anxiousness.

Practice gratitude

Gratitude has been linked to a variety of mental and physical benefits including having more patience, lowering cholesterol and having fewer aches and pains. “If we are truly mindful, we will naturally feel grateful because of an expanded awareness of all of the gifts we have in our lives,” writes Emma M. Seppala, in Psychology Today’s Feeling It blog.

Take care of yourself

As women, we have the tendency to put others first. Be intentional about managing your time and taking care of yourself. This could involve turning down a party invitation or simplifying the office holiday gathering. You should carve out a bit of “me time,” even if it’s just a few long soaks in the tub, settling down with a good book, or taking frequent pauses during the day to tune in and feel the body breathing. Some quick and easy ways to learn these techniques are with phone apps such as Headspace, Calm, Stop, Breathe & Think and Insight Timer.

To go deeper, join a mindfulness class — either online or in person. There are many local offerings, including: Valley MindfulnessValley Stress Reduction and Yoga Center Amherst.

Or find an MBSR program near you at the UMass Medical School website.

Christina Trinchero is the marketing communications director at Cooley Dickinson Health Care in Northampton. Women’s Health is written by health care professionals affiliated with Cooley Dickinson. It appears in the Daily Hampshire Gazette monthly.