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Stanford University School of Medicine

Six mindfulness tips to combat holiday stress

Is your holiday season stressful or even lonely? Have you heard about the scientific benefits of mindfulness but just don’t see how you could fit it in - especially during the holidays?

We often mistakenly think meditation requires sitting in lotus posture, preferably on a lotus flower in the middle of a still lake in Thailand with birds chirping in the background. Although that would be nice, it’s clearly not always possible and the good news is that it’s not necessary either. No matter what we are doing – whether it is commuting or traveling, eating or talking, sitting around or doing chores, each of these activities presents an opportunity for mindfulness. Here are six easy ways to integrate mindfulness into your holidays (and any day)!

Most meditation exercises are designed to bring your mind back into the present moment where it is happiest and calmest. About 50 percent of the time, we aren’t in the present moment, according to a study of 5,000 people by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University. Our minds tend to wander and the researchers concluded that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” It is a fascinating fact that, no matter what we’re actually doing, pleasant or unpleasant, we are happiest when our mind is in the present moment. So here are some easy exercises that work, no matter where you are:

1. During the commute/travel

Driving mindfully. So often, we regard our commute or cartravel as a stressful annoyance. The worst is when we are stuck in traffic. But hold on, here’s a chance for you to sit back, relax and focus on your breathing. Bring your mind back into the present moment and see if you can become aware of everything around you. Usually our mind is always wandering, especially when we’re in an uncomfortable situation. Being stuck in a commute or in traffic allows us to develop being in the present moment. Have screaming children in the backseat? Practice fully accepting the moment as it is. Chances are they will calm down as you do… The result? You’ll arrive calmer and feel more rested and even restored.

2. During meals

Eat mindfully. We often stuff our faces while watching TV, between meetings or in front of our computer. During the holidays, we tend to overeat. We are so busy consuming, we sometimes fail to fully pay attention to the flavors that grace our mouths. Try eating a snack with full attention. Notice how it looks and smells, feel the burst of flavors as you place it in your mouth, notice the taste of each bite, the texture. Contemplate the many people it took to bring this food to you (from the farmers to people delivering it to stores to you). You will open your eyes renewed, calmer and more focused.

3. During conversation

Listen mindfully. Every interaction we have, whether it is at work or at home is an opportunity for mindfulness. Usually we are bursting with the impulse to talk about ourselves, to interrupt, or, oftentimes our mind is wandering – i.e. we are not really listening. See if, even for 5 minutes, you can fully dedicate your attention and awareness to the people who are speaking to you. Not only will you feel more peaceful and calm, but you will notice that you can understand them better and they will in turn feel deeply grateful and valued as they notice your full attention on them. As Simone Weil writes, “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

4. During couch potato time

Rest mindfully. Ever get home and crash on the sofa too tired to move? Will this holiday involve a lot of sitting around with family? Hey, great time to close your eyes and recharge the batteries. Just like you plug in your phone to juice it up, you can get a quick pick me up by unplugging yourself. Just five minutes of sitting with your eyes closed and noticing the in and outflow of your breath can do wonders.

5. During chores

Yes, that’s right, chore mindfully. Hate doing the dishes, laundry or changing diapers, especially when there are loads of dishes after a holiday party? Research shows that we enjoy something more if we are 100 percent present with it. Next time you do an annoying chore, see if you can do so with 100 percent of your attention instead of trying to get it over with or daydreaming about something you’d rather do.

6. Anytime

Practice gratitude. Research by Shelley Gable and Jonathan Haidt suggests that we actually have three times more positive experiences than negative every day. What keeps us from fully capitalizing on all the good in our lives, making us a slave to the bad? We tend to focus on the negative. The antidote? Practicing gratitude. Moreover, gratitude has been linked to a host of psychological and health benefits (for more on the science of gratitude, see this post). If we are truly mindful we will naturally feel grateful because of an expanded awareness of all of the gifts we have in our lives. Whether you’re at work or at home, take 5 minutes to close your eyes and think of all the things you feel grateful for. Research shows it will not only improve your health and well-being, chances are it will also make you more resilient and happy.

Need more encouragement or proof? Check out this infographic on the benefits of meditation you can print out to keep up your daily meditation enthusiasm! Want more research facts? This article gives you 20 science-based facts on the benefits of meditation.

Emma Seppala, PhD, is associate director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and a research psychologist at the School of Medicine. She is also a certified yoga, pilates, breath work and meditation instructor. This piece originally appeared on her blog.

Photo by Minoru Nitta

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