It's the most wonderful time of the year… except when it's the absolute worst. Unrealistic expectations, awkward family dinners and the stress of checking off that long gift list can grind down even the most cheerful among us.
Although you might not be able to eliminate family dysfunction or shopping stress, there are a handful of mindfulness tools you can use to help better navigate these stressors. We asked world-renowned meditation expert Sharon Salzberg, author of "Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection," for tips to improve the holiday experience.
Here's her take on the season's biggest emotional triggers and tips for what you can do to manage them and wring more joy out of the holidays:
We all have images in our head of the perfect holiday celebration in a lavishly decorated home with friends and relatives who are oh, so glad to see one another. They're laughing and talking without any disagreement or awkwardness, despite their differences or distance. These expectations of perfection are perhaps the biggest holiday joy killer. "The important thing is recognizing them as expectations" and not reality, Salzberg said. "They are stories given to us by the culture at large."
What to do instead: The reality is that in most celebrations, even those with all the trimmings, you will still have parents who dish out unsolicited advice, friends who share divisive opinions and relatives who hold grudges. Rather than comparing and despairing, try setting an intention for each family dinner or gathering, Salzberg said. What one thing can you do to make it enjoyable and memorable?
Do you want to buoy the spirits of a certain person? Do you want to give your kids the continuity of family? Decide what your intention is and concentrate on that mission, rather than being distracted and frustrated by your circumstances. If the stress of expectations around giving is weighing you down, she suggests making donations to charities or giving gifts only to young children.
Ease family drama
Of course, you can't always tune out the snarky comments or hold your tongue when someone is conducting a direct assault on your parenting skills, outfit choice or political views. But you can release some of the emotional pressure before you blow up and feel even worse.
What to do instead: Take a moment to breathe and acknowledge what you're feeling. "We want to pause and not be driven to action," Salzberg said. Sometimes labeling your emotion in the moment can help soften it. She also recommends reminding yourself that the person delivering the verbal attack is "doing the best they can." It might not seem they're behaving, but it might be the best they can do today. It's also a good idea in this mental timeout to remind yourself of the intention you set earlier. "Grandma's not going to smile if you take the turkey leg and throw it across the room," Salzberg quips.
The statistics on the number of people in this country who feel lonely around the holidays are staggering. If you don't have close family or friends in your area and don't have much planned in the way of celebration, it's easy to get dragged down by depression.
What to do instead: "The best remedy is to help someone else," Salzberg said, through volunteering or outreach of some sort. That doesn't mean you must pull a long shift at the soup kitchen if you've already been putting in long hours at work. "There are many ways to get involved without it feeling like a burden." You could make an online donation for a soldier to call home, light a candle and say a prayer for someone you know who is frail or simply do a walking meditation on the street wishing strangers safety, joy, good health and ease in the new year. Here's a short video from Salzberg showing how this loving kindness meditation works.
Lastly, take time out of each day for yourself to enjoy some of the wonderful sensory aspects of the holidays, from the smell and warmth of a mug of hot chocolate or cider pressed into your palm to the sounds of a holiday standard on the radio on your drive home, or just the crackle of wrapping paper as you fold it around a gift. Feel the entire moment, Salzberg says, without multi-tasking. These tiny acts "break the momentum" of holiday stress so we "feel fulfilled and don't feel so restless or agitated."