The festive season is drawing near and, although for many it’s a celebration - whether religious, time with family and friends or a rest from work - the winter holidays can bring their own stress and blues. The shorter days of the solstice mark the start of colder, wetter weather. We might feel the urge to hibernate, yet find that work or other commitments prevent us from slowing down.
Traditionally a midwinter holiday, Christmas is of course a religious festival. Nowadays, however, the early preparation in the shops and the emphasis on buying presents can result in us feeling financial pressure. The focus on Christmas and New Year as a time for family and friends can highlight the absence of loved ones for those of us who feel lonely, distanced or bereaved.
Even if we thoroughly enjoy the festive season, we might feel frazzled after the bustle, or even feel deflated once the decorations are down and everyday life resumes. In Britain we name the third Monday in January as Blue Monday, highlighting the idea that many of us have lower moods once back to work in winter.
I’m highlighting these potential stressors not to put a dampener on Christmas, but to draw attention to a conflict many of us might not be aware of. The pressure to celebrate the “season to be merry,” even if we are genuinely full of joy, can mean we’re rushing about on adrenalin and not taking time to slow down, notice our feelings and what our bodies are saying to us.
I’ve been attending the Stress Project’s weekly mindfulness drop in classes and have found their emphasis on acknowledging and allowing our sensations and emotions, positive or negative, conflicting or confusing, a calming and welcoming experience.
I asked Ulanah Morris, who facilitates the classes, what mindfulness is about and how it might help us through the ups and downs of Christmas and New Year. She quoted a definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat Zinn, the medical professor who created Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction for chronic pain, stress and illness in the 1980s: “mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.”
Being non-judgemental is important because we can add to negative feelings by feeling bad about them. When Christmas is hyped as a time for jollity, we might feel we shouldn’t have negative emotions at all. Ulanah suggests exercising compassion and self care over the season. We can relieve stress by noting and accepting emotions instead of denying or struggling against them. In moments of anxiety, the simple act of observing our feelings provides us with some distance, removing our minds from the immediate stress. It gives us some space and a chance to put things in perspective, allowing the feelings to pass rather than build up.
For those who find Christmas particularly hard - perhaps if we haven’t loved ones to spend it with, are reminded of losses and unfulfilled hopes, or simply cannot afford the gifts and foods on display around us - mindfulness offers some means to soften the painful experience. Suffering can be increased by wanting things to be different and imagining how things could be better. Instead, focusing on present sensations, tastes, smells, touch and sounds, can help bring us back into the present moment and in touch with what we do have, here and now. As Ulanah points out: “Christmas might be about presents; mindfulness is about presence. It brings us back from “what I should have…” into the present.”
Even if we’re experiencing intense loneliness or loss, mindfulness can help us strengthen feelings of connection - so essential when we’re feeling most lost or isolated. “We can create connection by being aware, being in gladness, and we’re not supposed to be in gladness all the time...we’re feeling lonely or sad, then in observing this we’re adding some objectivity and awareness so are not consumed by it, in standing aside we can allow it and then it is less overwhelming.”
Mindfulness emphasises appreciation and gratitude for what we have in the here and now. This doesn’t mean we should berate ourselves for feeling the absence of good things, but rather that an awareness of present sensations can help connect us to our surroundings, other people around us and even ourselves. We can lose sight of ourselves and what matters to us when we experience disconnection due to loss or pain. While mindfulness might not change our situation, it can, by reconnecting us with our present selves, provide us with some grounding to rebuild from.
This sense of connection, with ourselves, other people, with nature and our environment can increase as we grow accustomed to bringing our awareness back to the present moment. We don’t have to sit down and take time out to meditate in order to feel the benefits of being present. Today I experienced the joy of connecting with my surroundings in the immediate moment when, returning home overwhelmed by worries, I paused to slow down my breathing, looked out of my window and watched a pigeon drink from a puddle on the roof opposite. I was struck by the beauty of the light glistening on the puddle’s ripples and the pigeon’s intent focus on the water; I felt my worries step aside, replaced by awe at the beauty of nature and a sense of connection with the outside world.
Of course, Christmas and New Year can also be wonderful celebrations. The Stress project’s mindfulness drop in and courses are a lot of fun and even cater for post festival excess. We hold “mindful eating” sessions, where we bring in different foods and try out slow eating, appreciating the colours, textures, smells then the tastes and sounds of fruits, cakes, biscuits and nuts one by one (before grabbing a plate and scoffing down as much as we can eat!). So anyone who wants to try out ways to slow down, focus and appreciate with gratitude the joys of everyday life will find the classes provide new techniques and insights.