Zen and the Art of Really, Truly (For Real This Time) Enjoying the Holidays

It's the most wonderful time of the year -- but it can also feel like the most stressful, yank-your-hair-out time, too. Use these easy strategies to enjoy what really matters.

Keep Your Cool

Almost half of women and a third of men report that their stress hikes during the holidays, according to the American Psychological Association. But yours doesn't have to, as long as you:

Create a morning ritual: Adding a moment of calm to your morning routine can start the day right. During the holidays, Catherine Powers, spa director of L'Auberge de Sedona in Arizona, lights a candle and reads a poem. "It takes less than a minute and helps keep me grounded for the rest of the day," she says. Not your style? Try listening to soothing music with your coffee or doing a couple of sun salutations. 

Let go of the coulda, woulda, shouldas:  The house should look festive but neat. I wish I could cook a meal just like my grandmother. If only I would get all my holiday shopping done in the beginning of December. Just fuhgeddaboudit. "We create so much unnecessary and added pressure with our own internal dialogue," family therapist Alisa Ruby Bash says. Instead of beating yourself up about what you haven't done, focus on the results of what you've accomplished. When you find the "-ouldas" looping through your mind, stop and think about the most recent task you crossed off your to-do list. Focusing on the positive helps relieve stress and gives you the energy to get things done.  

Just breathe: Whether you're stuck in the airport waiting to reschedule a canceled flight, or on the impossibly long line at the toy store, try equal breathing, advises Matt Walsh, director of the Keystone Spa in Colorado. Simply inhale through your nose as you count to four, hold breath for a count to four, then exhale for a count to four. 

Stick to Regular Exercise

Get your heart pumping to relieve both stress and depression. Whether it's a walk around the block or a full-on workout, physical activity can give you a needed time-out. 

Schedule it: You're far more likely to exercise if you've already made time for it, so literally pencil (or tap) it in. Try for at least 20 minutes on most days -- it doesn't have to be a gym session, or even all at once. When you know it's going to be difficult to exercise, jot down ideas to be more active throughout the day: Park in the farthest spot at the grocery store, or take the stairs at the mall. 

Head outside: It'll do wonders for your mood. (And, if you live in a cool climate, for your metabolism: Research shows that cold-weather exertion releases a hormone that helps rev your metabolic rate.) Really zen out with some rhythmic breathing: Take two steps for every inhale and two steps for every exhale to keep things moving in a calming pattern.

Make it a family affair: After the holiday meal, get everyone up and out for sledding, ice skating, or even a snowball fight. And yes, this counts as exercise: A half-hour of sledding or ice skating burns 260 calories.

Get intense: Before you decide you don't have time to work out, listen to Geralyn Coopersmith, global director of performance and fitness training at Nike, Inc. She says that weaving in HIIT (high intensity interval training) can burn more calories and fat than working out longer at a moderate pace. In one study, women who did 20 minutes of sprints on a stationary bike three times a week lost more fat than those who cycled twice as long, slow and steady. Warm up for five minutes, then do four one-minute sprints, each followed by two minutes of recovery. 

Don't Spend Too Much Money

Financial stress tends to spike this time of year, and it's no wonder: A Coinstar survey says that 67 percent of us spend more than we planned for. How to manage your bottom line:

Budget it: Write down household and personal expenses for November and December, and for each month, subtract the total amount of expenses from your monthly pay, advises Alex Wlassowsky, a regional sales manager with Merrill Edge. The amount left over is what you can afford to spend on everything from gifts to decorations. While you're at it, make a list of all the people you're gifting -- babysitters, teachers, mail carriers, etc. Small, unanticipated items are often the culprits for going over budget.

Take inventory: Costs for holiday festivities add up quickly, so as you're making plans for this year, think about what you really enjoyed in the past, and spend on that. For example, maybe your family loved the Christmas dinner party you hosted, but could happily do without the extravagant light display. "Often people realize that the best parts of the holidays were the times spent with loved ones, like the afternoon you all went tobogganing down a nearby hill," says NYC financial therapist Amanda Clayman.

Customize your credit card: Certain cards like Chase Freedom or Discover give you 5 percent cash back (up to $1,500) in specific categories like online shTaopping from October to December, notes Dani Alderman, leader of visitor experience at creditcardinsider.com. Others, like Capital One's Quicksilver Cash Rewards card, allow unlimited 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase. Just don't go whole hog: Alderman recommends using 50 percent or less.

Raid your piggy bank: Most Americans have around $56 in loose coins hanging around the house, according to Coinstar. Make it a game by involving the whole family and leaving no couch or chair cushion unturned. Also scour the bottoms of purses, car cup holders, and closet floors -- common places for loose change. While you're at it, gather old cell phones, tablets, and MP3 players: Companies like RadioShack often allow you to trade in all your old electronics for gift cards or sometimes even cash. 

Stay at Your Happy Weight

In reality, most of us gain only a pound or two from Thanksgiving to New Year's. But here's the rub: Studies show it's never lost -- and those pounds add up. Try these tricks to keep the scale steady:

Practice mindful eating: The key here is to eat more slowly so you can savor the flavors and really enjoy Aunt Ida's Christmas cake that you waited for all year. Put your fork down between bites, and whenever you find yourself going for that second helping or leftovers to snack on, stop and ask yourself: Am I really hungry right now? "Taking a moment before eating lets you get in touch with your body's true hunger signals and stop before you eat mindlessly," says Kirkland Shave, program manager of the British Columbia fitness retreat and health spa Mountain Trek. 

Limit lounging around: Sure, you deserve to take it down a notch, but physical activity is a de-stresser. So try not to be inert 24/7. "Plan some type of physical activity or outing every single day," says Willow Jarosh, R.D., owner of C & J Nutrition. And stay dressed for meals. That way, if your stomach doesn't tell your brain when it's full, your too-tight clothes will. Says Jarosh: "A lot of people are in lounge mode on vacation, and if you combine that with loose-fitting clothes, you don't have a reminder when you've eaten too much."

Deal With a Difficult Relative

There's always that one person who makes holiday get-togethers challenging. Keep everyone merry with this three-part plan from psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D.:

Give structure: Just like snack, nap, and play time helps keep toddlers on an even keel, occupying a prone-to-misbehave relative with useful activities like chopping veggies or setting the table can help keep bad behavior in check. 

Shift the focus: Maybe it's your mother-in-law -- when she starts talking, she just can't stop. Or Uncle Jack, who's looking for any little comment to launch into his political diatribe. Whatever it is, identify the signs that the bad behavior is starting, and make it your job or someone else's to de-escalate conflict by changing the topic. 

Don't explode, explore: It's easy to take it personally when your sister-in-law turns up her nose at your turkey, but take an empathetic rather than combative approach by seeing her as a puzzle to solve. What's going on that's causing her to feel the need to pull herself up by putting other people down? You'll see her bad behavior for what it is, and feel compassionate, which will dampen your urge to engage. Same with unsolicited advice: "The person likely just wants to feel helpful, so they feel good by telling others what to do," Heitler says. Instead of instinctively reacting and resisting, turn the conversation back to her. "Ask why she does it that way, and really listen to what she's saying," Heitler says. You might gain some new tips and insight, or at least keep the relative busy for a bit! 

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