Mindfulness Can Help Defuse Holiday Stress

By: Elizabeth Van Wye


Staying healthy during the holidays is sometimes a challenge, and the stress of the season can often take a physical toll. A recent hour-long workshop at the Brooks Free Library in Harwich led by Deborah Ennis, a local licensed mental health counselor, focused on reducing stress through the use of mindfulness.

"There is so much hype with the holiday season," Ennis noted. "We may take on more than we can handle and it still never feels like enough."

Mindfulness is defined as "choosing to be present with things as they are, without judgment, with acceptance, interest and curiosity," Ennis said. "Rather than judging ourselves when we feel we fall short, mindfulness involves pausing and observing our feelings and deciding how we want to proceed," she said.

In the workshop, Ennis suggested stressful situations might benefit from using the STOP technique, which calls us to Stop, Take a breath, Observe and Proceed. The technique encourages us, when feeling stressed, to stop and take a moment to sort emotions and feelings, Ennis said. Then, taking a breath and noticing the individual sensations, emotions and urges, leads to asking "how can I put aside the emotions I don't want and show up more fully in this situation?" Finally, there is an opportunity to proceed in a more mindful direction.

Ennis asked participants to identify when they might use this technique. Some possibilities included when rushing to the car to go shopping, when making ambitious holiday plans or when juggling a list of tasks at home.

"If we can proceed with more quality of attention, observing messages from our body and then proceeding, it can make a difference in our whole day," she said.

Ennis offered some ways to help increase joy and ease this holiday season with mindfulness. Among them were simplifying saying "no" and being kind to yourself and others. Other suggestions included focusing on what's important, maintaining healthy boundaries and taking time to connect with and honoring the memories of those who have gone before.

Of particular note was the importance of paying attention to self-care. That includes eating well, exercising and using healthy coping skills. Getting enough fresh air, getting to bed on time and staying warm as the weather gets cold were other examples of good self-care. Ennis also stressed paying attention to messages like hunger, fullness and tiredness from the body. We often let our brains override these messages and wind up ignoring our physical needs, she said.

Lowering the lights and projecting a serene garden scene, Ennis led the participants in a guided practice of mindfulness. With the sound of a chime, participants were encouraged to come in to the moment more fully, and Ennis suggested they close their eyes or soften their gaze. Sitting in a comfortable position with both feet on the floor and hands relaxed on their laps, participants were encouraged to notice their thoughts but let them come and go "like clouds across the sky."

Attention to breath was especially significant. "You already know how to breath," Ennis said. "We are learning to be aware of the breath." As the group sat in silence, Ennis noted "from the outside, it doesn't look like we are doing much. However, there is a lot going on as we gradually focus attention on what's actually here instead of the to-do list running through our minds."

After ending with a poem to wrap up the practice, Ennis asked participants to share their reactions to the session. "I felt like I was dropping into an inner space," one said. Another noted, "I felt I should do this more often."

For those who wanted to continue the practice, Ennis said that apps like Insight Timer offer online options for guided practice. In addition, her website healingtherapiescapecod@verizon.net offers free guided practice sessions online.