Managing Holiday Emotions with Mindfulness
By Ann Brand, Ph.D.
A few Decembers ago, I was driving to the butcher to pick up the Christmas roast, and I burst into tears. A wave of grief washed over me with no warning. My mother had died a year earlier, and I was carrying on the holiday tradition of preparing the roast. My first thought was, where did that come from? I had been feeling fine,excited about holiday preparations, and I had no room for feeling sad.
We have this idea that the holidays “should” be a happy, joyous time. And they can be. But we experience many other emotions as well: grief, loneliness, sadness, worry, frustration, guilt, and just a sense of feeling that there is so much to do and not enough time to do it. Since this isn’t how we think we are supposed to feel at the holidays, we try to get rid of those feelings. We either ignore them, suppress them, or criticize ourselves for having them in hopes we will dismiss them from our experience. The problem is that just because we don’t allow ourselves to feel them doesn’t mean they don’t still exist. And our unacknowledged emotions pop up in unexpected and unwelcome ways: feeling isolated at a family party, aching for a loved one who is not present, snapping at our kids when they don’t want to help decorate the tree or when they make a mess decorating cookies.
Mindfulness is about allowing ourselves to come in contact with the full range of our experience—thoughts, emotions, and sensations—whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. In allowing ourselves to take the time to acknowledge and honor the experience we are having, we have the space to relate to what we are feeling in a skillful, gentle way that offers kindness to ourselves. Of course I miss my mom at the holidays. The memories of past holidays with her are so precious to me and bring me much joy. Allowing myself to feel the grief in missing her also allows me to feel the warmth of the joy in those memories. And that warmth supports me in holding the grief too, which naturally arises. It is part of being human.
When we practice mindfulness regularly, we cultivate the capacity to be with our experience as it arises. The joys, the sorrows, the challenges. When a difficult emotion arises at an otherwise joyful time, we have the skills to pause, allow, and observe the emotion moving through our experience. As we take this time to allow, we have the opportunity to gain clarity in our experience, which then supports us in aligning with our values, hopes, and dreams for the holiday season, such as being present for our families, making meaningful connections with loved ones near and far, and supporting each other through the joys and challenges of the season.
Take some time each day this holiday season to pause and fin a little stillness, even if just for a couple minutes. Finding time in this hectic season to come in contact with our experience, whatever it is, supports us when we have unexpected emotions that don’t “fit”with what we expect during the holidays. When those waves of grief wash over me at the holidays, which they do even seven years later, my mindfulness practice supports me in pausing and allowing my experience, so I can respond to my grief with kindness and compassion. This gentleness with my feelings of grief allows me space to also connect with the joy in the present moment of the holiday season.
Take Three Breaths
When we notice ourselves feeling overwhelmed with the stresses and demands of the holiday season, we can pause and take just three deep breaths to help us come back to the present moment, experience some calm, and connect with the joy of the season.
Place your hand on your belly.
As you breathe in deeply, notice the sensation of the breath as it moves in and out of your body. Feel your belly rise on the inhale, and fall on the exhale.
Do this three times.