Inner Reflections
November 16, 2021

Stress Tips for the Holidays

The original spirit of the holidays was meant to be a time of joy, gratitude, and connecting with loved ones. But for many, it can often feel like an ultra endurance event wrought with stress and anxiety. In this podcast, we will explore important tips for moving through the holidays and managing your stress.

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[The following is the full transcript of this episode of “Dare to Awaken Podcast.”]

The original spirit of the holidays was meant to be a time of joy, gratitude, and connecting with loved ones. But for many, it can often feel like an ultra endurance event wrought with stress and anxiety. In this podcast, we will explore important tips for moving through the holidays and managing your stress.

Welcome to episode number 18 of the Dare to Awaken podcast, Managing your Stress During the Holidays.

So the holidays are here, although it’s a little bit strange because at the time of this recording here in Los Angeles, it’s about 90 degrees, so it feels almost like summertime. But the weather’s been quite erratic, but it is mid or late November by the time you’re hearing this podcast, maybe even early December, depending on when it comes out. And the reality is the holidays are here, and it’s always a hard time to believe that we’ve arrived at this particular time of year because, I know you can attest, the older you get, the faster these years seem to fly by, and especially the way the last couple of years have been with the pandemic and all that’s going on in the world. It’s just interesting and bizarre times. Yesterday, I was talking to my son, Bodey, and I was asking him if he was going to go to a certain class tomorrow. He goes to a running class every Thursday. And I said, “Are you going to go to run class tomorrow?” And he said no. And I said, “Oh, why not? Did it get cancelled?” And he said, “Well, today is Thursday.” So I didn’t even know what day it was. It’s kind of like that sensation of Groundhog Day.

But just to speak to this idea of just how fleeting, how fleeting time and this wild experience of being human can often feel. It can feel so ephemeral and almost like you’re caught in this wild river that’s just going so fast and you can’t really hold on. And that’s why these practices of yoga, meditation, mindfulness, slowing down, pausing, turning the energy inward, retreating from all the busyness of the external and the outer world are so important. But the reality is is that the holidays are often very, very busy, very frenetic, very, very hectic. But the spirit of the holidays is really meant to be in essence of joy and gratitude and generosity, and maybe most importantly, the benevolent quality of unconditional love. And I don’t know about you, but for me, there’s been holidays that have gone by and I’ve just felt so disconnected from the spirit and the essence of what the holidays are supposed to be about because I’ve gotten swept up into the hysteria and the stress that surrounds this time of year.

So stress is really that biggest obstacle to feeling in a deep, meaningful way, this true spirit of what this time of year is all about. It’s the ultimate buzz killer for the holidays. So I wanted to share some important tips with you within this particular podcast, tips that can hopefully help you manage stress as you move through this time of year. Now, we do know from a lot of research, more and more research is being done on stress and also being done on the effects of mindfulness and meditation. Research shows that stress reduces the neurotransmitters, serotonin, dopamine, and others, and these particular neurotransmitters are critical for a positive mood. So it’s going to be really, really difficult to feel happy and to feel that spirit of joy when on a chemical level these particular neurotransmitters are being limited due to stress. Stress also slows down the production of new brain cells. It activates what we call the amygdala, and this ultimately leaves us feeling frazzled and anxious and scattered. Whereas this word yoga really means union. In science, we may call it coherence. In music, we call it harmony. So when we’re able to manage our stress, when we’re able to meet these chaotic times with these mindfulness tips, and ultimately we are able to stay grounded within coherence, grounded within harmony, grounded within unity.

The other thing about stress is that it also narrows our focus on whatever the stressor is, whatever it is that we’re stressed about. We ruminate on it. We become obsessed with it. And then we start to enlarge it and magnify that stress, or we start to attach meaning and more and more meaning to that stressor until eventually we feel overwhelmed. Whereas when we’re not in a space of stress, our awareness begins to broad, and it’s as if you’re widening the lens. And as you widen that lens, you begin to feel more and more spacious.

And so these ancient wisdom cultures speak to this idea that what stress does is that it imprisons us into what we call the small self. The small self is being trapped within fear and worry, anxiety, concern, sometimes other negative toxic emotions like rage and guilt and shame. But when we broaden and we widen and we transcend the harmful effects of bad stress, then we move beyond the small self when we come back to the big self. So we have that choice, and it’s important to remember that this is one of the great gifts of being a human, is that we always have choice. We always get to dictate the path that we’re going to go down. But for a lot of us in an unconscious way, we’re programmed to survive off stress, to live in this way. And when we do it for long enough, it becomes our new normal. It becomes our new baseline. But that baseline isn’t in alignment with your optimal state of health and well-being and vitality and those benevolent qualities of joy and generosity and gratitude.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the great mindfulness teacher, says, “You can’t fight the waves but you can learn to surf.” And you think about this time of year, this time around the holidays where we do have all these waves coming at us. This is the season of abundance, and there can be good abundance, but there can also be harmful and destructive abundance, such as too much food, too much drink, too much over indulgences, which lead to imbalance. And that imbalance is what can cause us to get sick, to get burned out, to not feel good, to not feel great, to wake up feeling like we’re not ourselves in the morning time.

So it’s very important within this time of year when these big waves are coming out is that we use these tools or these tips I’m about to share with you as the surf board to help you surf those waves. These are tools, and these are tips. The first one is it’s all about having a plan. As the great Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.” You have to have a strategy. You know what’s coming up. And without that strategy, you’re a lot more likely to fail, to flounder, to struggle, to suffer with all that’s coming at you. Parties, invitations, Christmas, holiday treats. So much coming at you. You have to be anchored within what matters. You have to be committed. Or as one group of Japanese monks, these particular monks that run long distances from one pilgrimage site to another, from one temple to another, sometimes 50 or 100 miles, they have this saying – it’s one of my favorite quotes – it says, “When you commit to nothing, you become distracted by everything.” And it’s so true, right? If we’re not clear with our plan, with our strategy, with what our commitments are, there’s just too much going on to pull us away from the path of meaning and the path of purpose.

The next tip is to move your body. And of course, this is common sense. A lot of these tips are common sense, but common sense isn’t always common practice. We forget to do these things. So move your body. Keep exercising. Even if it’s only 10 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes, that little bit of time will do a world of good. As they say on the airplane, you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you put it on to others. You can’t be there for other people, you can’t show up for your loved ones if you’re not showing up for yourself and renewing your energy. Taking the time to take care of yourself allows you to provide for those that you want to spend quality time with over the holidays. That exercise obviously is great for your health. It’s great for your resiliency. You become a little less stressed. You become less reactive, less snapping. You have a greater buffer physically, mentally, and emotionally with moving through those waves that arise.

Exercise is also going to transform your chemistry. You’re going to decrease harmful chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. And they’re not always bad, but when they get out of control and they’re arising at the wrong times and the wrong amounts, then it becomes a destructive thing. And so we shift away from harmful levels of cortisol and adrenaline, and we increase feel-good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine. Some of those good neurotransmitters that we talked about that are critical to a positive and benevolent and joyful mood. It doesn’t matter how you move your body. You can move your body in whatever way feels right for you, whether that’s going for a brisk walk, doing a yoga practice on Inner Dimension TV, or even doing a short hip workout or CrossFit workout or going for a hike, going for a run, just moving your body is the key. And even on those busy, busy, busy days again, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, just get in whatever you can.

All right. The next tip is the power of the mindful moment. We don’t always have 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes, especially during the holidays, to meditate. The reality is is that the schedule is really full and maybe we’re traveling somewhere, we’re staying at a family member’s house and people are staying with us. And it just doesn’t work out that we can do what we normally do within our regular routine. And that’s okay. We have what’s called these micro moments throughout our day where we can practice this power of the mindful moment, because rushing around, it creates stress. But by staying slow, by being steady and not getting swept away in the hysteria and the mania of this time of year, we can be a zone of peace wherever we go. And this is really important because we have what’s called emotional contagion. If we’re feeling stressed and where we’re out in public or even we’re in our home around other people, then we spread, we spread that stress to others. But if we can be in that state of harmony, if we can be that zone of peace, then that’s what we begin to spread into the external environment around us. People can feel what we’re feeling. So any time you’re waiting, this is a great time for the mindful moment because for most people, what happens when they wait, is they become unconscious. They slip into old patterns and programs. They get out their cell phone. They get sucked into a social media vortex. And a lot of times that doesn’t go so well. You start comparing, you start feeling less than not good enough. This person is so more beautiful, and here I am, standing in line at Target or whatever it is, surrounded by lots of people, traffic everywhere. And you’re starting to feel miserable about yourself because you’re comparing yourself.
Or you go into impatience mode, and the moment you become impatient, you start to elevate your stress. And all these things can arise if we’re not very, very vigilant and aware to our moment-to-moment experience unfolding. In those moments of waiting – standing in line, going holiday shopping, buying food at the grocery store, driving in your car, waiting in line to get on the airplane – use this as an opportunity to come back, to come back to stillness, to come back to settling and quieting the mind, observing the breath moving in and out through the nose. And I know for many people that sounds like the most boring, mundane thing in the world to do, to just watch your breath. But here’s the deal. Boredom cannot exist when a mind is focused and present. Boredom only arises when you lose presence, when you lose focus. This is how people are able to go on a meditation retreat for multiple days in a row, hours and hours a day of just watching their breath, or the Zen master that sits down in front of a wall and just stares at a speck on the wall for hours on end without becoming bored.
It’s about being focused. So you focus on the breath. You can feel your feet on the ground if you’re standing. You can feel all four corners of the feet rooted firmly into the Earth. If you’re driving in the car maybe right now and you’re listening to this podcast, you’re driving, you can feel your hands on the steering wheel. Feel the breath moving in and out your navel, moving outward and inward. You can use these as a moments to scan through your body and notice if you’re holding tension anywhere – your shoulders, your neck, your jaw, your face, your back, your belly – and relax and soften these areas and feel the miracle of being alive. Feel the miracle of this breath that breathes you without you having to breathe it. And then again, you’re shifting, you’re allowing that pendulum to swing away from stress and to peace, serenity, tranquility, ease, equanimity. If you really start to feel overwhelmed, and this can happen, that’s okay. Then you can use a phrase, “This too shall pass,” like a mantra or an affirmation, remembering that all experiences have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the same way, at the beginning of the talk, I was talking about how ephemeral and fleeting these years can feel. It’s true also for experiences.

So remember that it’s going to pass, the discomfort, the stress, the anxiety. If you’re in a place with a lot of people and you’re starting to feel that overwhelm and that anxiety, just breathe and recite that mantra, that affirmation, “This too shall pass.” I had to use that recently. A couple of months ago, we did a yoga retreat in Greece and on the way flying back, it was me, my wife, and my youngest daughter, Willow, who was about a year and a half at that time, and we had to stand in line in Athens for two hours, and there was only one person working behind the desk and having a little one, a toddler, just makes everything that much more stressful. And so I used these practices and these tools in those moments to not add more unnecessary drama and suffering. So it really speaks to the wisdom of surrender or yielding to this moment and the way that it arises so that you’re not fighting it and you’re not getting too swept up within denying that where you are and where you want to be are two different places. “I want to move through the line. I want to get to the next place. I want to get on the airplane. I want to get back home. I want to get in the taxi. Then I want to get back into the house, and then I want to take a shower.” And this is what the mind does. It’s always moving ahead, and wherever you’re at and wherever you want to go, the further those are separated from each other, the greater your stress levels become. Because stress arises when you’re here, but you want to be there, you want to be somewhere else. So know that somewhere else is in this moment right here, right now, and your breath is always happening in the moment. Physical sensations that you’re feeling within your body are also happening in this moment. Data and information that’s coming in through your senses is also happening so you can meditate and be aware on your sense perception. Meditation doesn’t have to be you sitting on a cushion with your eyes close. Meditation can be these micro moments, such as waiting.

All right. The next tip is to remember to activate the relaxation response. Within our central nervous system, we have the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. Sympathetic branch is connected to stress, fight, flight, or freeze. It’s the accelerator, driving that accelerating, pressing the pedal to the metal. That’s one branch. The other branch, the opposite, is the parasympathetic branch. It’s like the brake on the car. We’re slowing down. And this is sometimes known as triggering the relaxation response and moving away from that stress. So we’re moving from striving into arriving, from doing into being, from pushing into allowing. And even when you reflect upon these words – being, allowing, relaxing – notice what that does within your nervous system. It’s almost like the stress instantly begins to dissipate and dissolve. So one powerful way that you can activate the relaxation response in the afternoon or the evening is doing a pose called legs up against the wall. And it’s a deathly name because you go to a wall and you put your legs up on the wall. So you’re lying down on the floor. You can spread your arms out, what we call cactus arms, palms in the sky. Your butt’s right up against the wall. Your legs are supported by that wall, and you’re coming into an inversion, turning yourself upside down, which is very good for blood pressure. And it starts to activate that parasympathetic branch of the nervous system.

And then you can take it to a whole other level of relaxation and response by working with your breath and breathing in for about four seconds, holding the breath in for four seconds, breathing out for about four seconds, and then holding the breath out for about four seconds. So this is what we call even breath, or in yoga, Sama Vritti. Vritti is waves; Sama means even. So the even-way breath. And as you slow the breath down – the average person breathes about 15, 16 breaths per minute – with this breath ratio, you’re slowing down to four breaths per minute. This is going to be medicine for your nervous system.

Next tip is this idea of finding the middle path. The middle path is a topic and a theme that was really taught by Buddha, The Awakened One. And the idea is that if we do things too extreme, then we lose balance. And all things in nature survive and thrive when they’re in a state of balance. But when things become imbalanced in nature, then it begins to lose its integrity, it begins to decay, and eventually it can die away. So we want to find our balance as we move through the holiday season. So that may mean not saying no the holiday treats or holiday drink or whatever it is. Maybe you have a glass, maybe you have a cup, you have a little bit here, a little bit there, but you’re conscious and you’re aware, you’re mindful as you do these activities, so it never becomes an imbalance. So it’s about finding that balance and that middle path between yes and no. And allowing yourself the permission to loosen up a little bit more than you typically would throughout the rest of the day. So this may mean that you’re not exercising quite as much or you’re not as strict within your diet. But instead of trying to be some perfect monk through the holidays, you’re giving yourself that space to actually enjoy things a little bit. As they say, in moderation, only do things in moderation.
Ajahn Chah, a famous Zen master who was one of my teacher’s teacher, he used to get criticized by a student because to one of his students he would say, “Do this. Do this. Practice more. Practice more. Do more meditation. Be stricter.” And then five minutes later, he’d been counseling another student. He would say, “Do less, less meditation. Be less strict. Be more compassionate with yourself.” And other people would be like, “You seem to contradict yourself within your teachings. What’s the deal here?” And Ajahn Chah, Zen Master, would explain, “Well, I see one student about to veer off the road and go down the cliff this way, so I’m going, ‘ Go left, go left, go left.’ And then the other student’s about to go off into the ditch on the opposite side of the road, I say, ‘Go right, go right, go right.'” So again, pointing back to this notion of finding that middle path.

Next tip. Remember to be grateful through this holiday season. Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy of Duke University says something very, very bold and profound. “If thankfulness were a drug, it would be the world’s best selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.” I think it’s worth repeating, “If thankfulness were a drug, it would be the world’s best selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.” In other words, gratitude has a powerful impact on every organ in the body. Researcher Robert Emmons would probably agree. His research has determined that people who kept a gratitude journal were 25% happier than others. And we also know that gratitude improves immunity. And what happens often this time of year, people get sick, they get cold, they get congestion, and then you throw a virus and a pandemic into the mix and again, being grateful, being thankful improves your immunity and improves your resiliency. It improves every organ in your body. So I want to share a practice with you. Either you keep a gratitude journal, or before you go to bed at night, you can meditate and reflect upon three things that happen throughout your day that you’re deeply grateful for. The important thing is is that you’re not just thinking about it, but you’re also feeling it, that emotion of gratitude also needs to accompany the thought. The thought sends a signal out, but the emotion draws the experience back to you. So look at it like two wings of a bird, thinking and feeling. And when you have both, then you’re taking flight, then you’re receiving the full benefits and effects of what gratitude practice can offer you.

Neuroscientists have found that positive emotions prop new cellular growth, and negative emotions cause decay. See, your thoughts and your emotions, they create an electromagnetic signature, and this vibration and this frequency is moving throughout your whole entire body. So when you have a doctor that says an emotion has an effect on every organ in your body, these emotions are moving throughout the whole entire field of your body. And remember, when you’re in that state of gratitude and joy and you’re uplifted and you’re happy and steady and your peaceful and you’re connected and you’re harmonious and you have coherence, you’re not just benefiting yourself, but you’re also benefiting your community: community at home, community in your neighborhood, community in your town, your village, the city that you live in. So this is why you have to come back and put your oxygen mask on, why it’s so important to remember to do that. Because in the end, it benefits all those around you. And isn’t that what this time of year is all about? The holiday season is about generosity, about compassion, joy, connection, celebrating our loved ones, maybe even celebrating prolific teachers. Thank you so much for tuning in. Thank you for your kind attention. Much health, much wealth, much love. May we dare to awaken. Happy holidays.