Feeling some holiday stress? Is there too much NO in your Noel?

As the holiday season gets into full swing, are you losing some of your zing?

Whatever your reason for the season may be, whether Christmas or Kwanzaa, Hanukkhah or Yule…

Are you becoming perhaps just a bit fatigued or cranky?

Have you caught yourself wondering if the holidays are worth all your extra effort?

Parties, visits, decorations, family get-togethers, gift shopping/creating/wrapping, and religious observances… Somehow we cram all that into our already-full schedules.  Holiday celebration can easily morph into holiday overwhelm.

And, it must also be said:  for some of us, holidays have become a time for mourning, not celebrating.  The decorations, parties, and supposedly joyous observances throw our grief into sharper relief, leaving us feeling mute, overcome, and out of step.

Whether you’re overwhelmed or overcome, here are 3 simple, low-energy tips to take the No out of Noel:

  • Schedule first things, first
  • Heed the rumble strips
  • Use your mind to change your brain

Schedule First Things, First

close up of a page of a calendar

If you’re an ambitious, go-getter, dedicated professional in your field, if you love what you do, or at least love getting stuff done… it can be very easy to end up with no time for our friends and family.  And cutting friends and family out of our lives can lead to burnout.

So my first tip is to take a look at your calendar.  Before you attend any more office parties, or sign up to be on any more committees, make sure you’ve booked out time for the people who are most important in your life.  Do that, FIRST.

Dr. Dike Drummond, who calls himself “The Happy MD,” has a wonderful 3-step process for this, that he calls, “Schedule the Big Rocks First.”  It looks like this:

  1. Write down your “Big Rocks,” or, in my terms, identify your “first things.” Drummond says that's as as simple as answering these questions:
  • Who are the most important people in your life?
  • What are the most important things you would like to do with them?
  • What are the juiciest items on your Bucket List?
  1. Schedule them! Do it NOW. Pull out your calendar and get them in there now. (While you’re at it, go several months, or more, into your calendar.  This “Big Rocks” or First Things First principle applies well past the holidays.)
  2. Defend your Big Rocks. This means, treat these appointments in your calendar as inviolate.

When someone asks you to commit to something that conflicts with a Big Rock, defend it! As Dr. Drummond describes it, your vigorous defense is this simple:

Your Big Rocks are sitting right there on your schedule. You can simply look the person making the request in the eye and Tell the Truth.

It might sound something like this:

“I am sorry – Thank you for asking
or – “I am BOOKED”
or – “I have a PRIOR COMMITMENT”

Heed Your Rumble Strips

One of my clients, who works from home, recently described her “plan” for setting her work hours as, simply, “Am I conscious? Did I eat? Let’s work!”  She loves her work, her income is dependent on her working, so if she’s awake and fed, she works.  She does some amazing self-care, yet was finding herself still overwhelmed.  If you’d like to see what we discussed, go here.

Certainly, when the holidays are upon us, with our to-do lists and our calendars crammed to bursting, even that simple plan may feel too ambitious. Basics like “Did I eat?” may drop out of our personal assessments without our even noticing their absence. At least, until the low blood sugar, crankiness, or exhaustion become too strong for us to ignore any longer.

So my second tip is: “Heed your rumble strips.”

Let me explain. Have you ever been driving down a highway when your attention wanders just a little bit, you veer a little out of your lane, and then a weird “wubba-wubba-wubba noise and vibration snaps your attention back to the road?

Roadway with shoulder rumble stripYou realize you’ve drifted out of your lane.  The warning signs of the noise and vibration came from rolling over the rumble strip on the side of the highway. Quickly, you swerve back into your proper lane. You realize you were moments away from a serious accident, and you resolve to keep your mind on the road.

What are your personal life rumble strips? What goes “wubba wubba wubba” and shakes your body or your mind, letting you know you’re about to drive off the road?  These days, some of my personal rumble strips are: shouting at other drivers, finding myself obsessively playing Solitaire on the computer late at night, or having small near-accidents, such as stumbling, or missing the table when I go to set down my coffee cup.

These rumble strips are much better than my old stress warning signs.  It used to be that I would just “keep on keeping on” while the wubba wubba-wubba got louder and shook me harder.  “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” was my inner slogan, so I’d double down.

Some people need to be hit with a brick to get their attention.  In the past, I was one of  those people — apparently, I needed to be hit with a BIG brick.  So, in those days, my first rumble strip indicators, or stress warning signs — that I noticed – came when I'd sprain my ankle (again!) or get sidelined by a bout with bronchitis (again!)

Take a moment to think about – what are the first signs that you are getting overstressed?  What behaviors pop up for you, when you are feeling overwhelmed, overstressed, or burned out? Jot down a little list.

Here is a useful list of categories of behavioral warning signs from the Harvard HelpGuide about preventing burnout:

  1. Withdrawing from responsibilities
  2. Isolating yourself from others
  3. Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out your frustrations on others
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

Are any of those rumble strips making noise and vibration in your life right now?  Are any of them “big bricks,” or threatening to turn into big bricks? Is your health or safety at risk? Are you putting others at risk?

When your rumble strips start making noise in your life, STOP! Take these simple steps:

Step 1. Pause what you are doing (when it is safe to do so). Take some slow, deep breaths.

Step 2. Assess your situation. Identify any additional warning signs. Do you need immediate care?

Step 3. Do a quick mental Review in three areas:

  • First, how much are you trying to manage at once?  Is this a reasonable amount for one human being?  If not, apply the three D’s: Delay, Delegate, or Drop.  Delay: maybe it doesn’t need to be done now, or even this month.  Delegate: maybe someone else can or should be doing this?  Drop: Does it really, really need to be done at all?
  • Second, have you recently stopped doing something that had been protecting you? Any behaviors you need to add to protect your energy and your mood?
  • Third, if there are new stressors in your life, are they short-term or long-term? Do you have control over any of these new changes? (Did you eat? Have you gotten enough sleep? Have you told your drunken Uncle Harry that you will not be visiting his house for the holidays this year?

You may just need a quick mental pick-me-up. Which brings us to tip #3:

Use Your Mind to Change Your Brain

I love the technical term for this: it’s called “self-directed neuroplasticity.” Which means, your brain is moldable (like plastic) into what you want it to be, and you can mold it yourself.  You really can use your mind to change and build the neuronal connections in your brain. Or, in other words, “you wire what you fire.”

Here's how that works. The more you practice or rehearse something – anything! A belief. A skill. A method of paying attention. – The more you fire the neuron connections in your brain by practicing or rehearsing, even just thinking something over and over, the more your brain will form new connections that reinforce the thing you’re practicing.  Get it? You wire what you fire. Use your mind to change your brain.

At this point, positive psychology research has identified some very specific behaviors that relieve stress and build healthy pathways in your brain. These include mindfulness, gratitude, self-acknowledgement, and reaching out to others. I’ve written several times about developing a gratitude practice: here and here. Dr. Loomis and I also talk about all of these behaviors in our book.

But I’d like to introduce you to a beautiful way to take a super-quick tour through those behaviors, so you can beautifully wire what you fire. A Toastmaster friend, Roland Jarka, has combined them into an elegant one-minute moment of self-renewal. He calls it The Miracle Minute. Try watching his 5-minute YouTube video right now.

Isn’t it awesome? I love the Miracle Minute.

I’ve made one change in my own version of the Miracle Minute:  Instead of mentally traveling to a beautiful quiet place, I use Sonia Choquette’s Be Right Here method of mindfulness for the first step. Try it both ways, and see which works better for you.

Importantly, Jarka recommends, and I agree, that you try, for one week, to give yourself the gift of one-60th of each hour to revisit the Miracle Minute.  I have quite achieved every hour yet, but even doing it several times a day has paid off in more energy, more happiness, and less stress.  I often use a Rumble Strip warning as a trigger to run the Miracle Minute.  It lowers my stress very nicely.

Reduce Holiday Stress and Take the NO Out of Noel

OK, let’s review my three suggestions for how you can reduce holiday stress and take the NO out of Noel.

  • Schedule first things, first. Schedule the “Big Rocks” now. Choose the people and the things you’d most like to do with them, get them into your calendar, and defend those appointments.
  • Heed your rumble strips. Are your warning signs starting to rattle you? Are you perhaps ignoring them so much you’re in danger of being hit with a big brick?  If a rumble strip is shaking your shoulder, STOP, Assess your situation and get care if you need it, Review your activities and your stressors, and Apply the three D’s: Delay, Delegate, or Drop.
  • Use your mind to change your brain: Add the Miracle Minute into your day:
    • Breathe
    • Be grateful
    • Acknowledge yourself
    • Set an Intention
    • Identify someone you will Ask for Help

Use these three tools to decrease holiday stress.  I wish you Yes in your Yule, Comfort in your Kwanzaa, and Happiness in your Hanukkah.