The holidays can be incredibly busy, and sometimes just thinking about them starts to make us feel stressed. There’s planning, purchasing, preparing, maybe traveling and hosting, and navigating relationships and expectations. All of this, of course, is on top of our usual responsibilities as parents and family members.
In times like this, when we know we need to stay energized and avoid getting overwhelmed, we can try to include moments of mindfulness into our days. The beauty of mindfulness is that it can be beneficial even in small doses, and it doesn’t require that we drive somewhere and sit in silence for 10 days. Mindfulness really means slowing down, being aware of what is happening in the moment, and paying attention to our thoughts and reactions without judgment. Mindfulness is something we can practice in many different situations, even when we are walking or eating…or in the bathroom! Research shows us that integrating mindfulness can benefit our physical and emotional health, our productivity, and the way we approach others in relationships.
The whole point of the holidays is to get to spend quality time with family and friends. How do we keep that intention while avoiding the stress of trying to get everything done?
Below are a few simple strategies for integrating moments of mindfulness into our days:
Slow down. Getting ready for a gathering or travel can feel like a scattered race. In these times I find myself losing things, sticking the milk in the cupboard by mistake, and generally feeling overly activated. Sometimes just repeating the words “slow down,” and encouraging our bodies to follow (e.g., taking slower steps around the house and cutting back on multitasking) is helpful. Other times we might need to cue ourselves to “stop and take 3 slow, focused breaths” before moving to the next task. There is a lot to get done in a short amount of time, but the cost on our bodies and emotions of anxiously running around usually isn’t worth it.
Find a moment to take a break…alone. One of the benefits of being in a larger group for the holidays is that someone might be able to watch your kids for a second if you need to take a break. Maybe your break will come while you are showering and getting ready, or maybe all you can do is sneak away to the restroom. While you’re alone, use that moment to take some cleansing breaths and note how you are feeling. If you find yourself stressed or anxious, remind yourself that it is just a moment, and it will pass. If you find yourself joyful, note that and try to take a mental picture of what is happening so you can savor the positive emotions.
Observe and enjoy for a minute. While everyone is gathered around the table or talking in the living room, sit back and (surreptitiously) be the observer. What is happening right now? Notice some of the good things happening around you (e.g., your kids are engaged in an activity with a family member, everyone is enjoying their food), and take a second to just revel in this moment. Acknowledge how nice it is to have this moment; sometimes the simplest observations of gratitude are the most powerful.
What are your mindfulness strategies for the holidays?
Gratitude seems to be everywhere these days — from journals to books to posters and pillows. There’s a good reason for the focus on gratitude, since research shows that it’s one of the most powerful strengths we can cultivate. Being grateful is good for our health and mental health. People who practice gratitude regularly (for example by keeping a gratitude journal) have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure, and they report more joy and positivity in their lives. Grateful people also tend to be more generous and compassionate. Gratitude helps us affirm the goodness in our lives, which has positive effects on our ourselves and the people around us.
The speed and hustle of each day often makes it hard for me to remember to feel grateful, even though I know that in my heart I am deeply grateful for so much in my life. I also know that by the time I get myself to bed at night the last thing I feel that I have the energy to do is start journaling, or writing a letter of thanks to someone.
So how can we go about being more grateful, especially in our busy lives? How can we cultivate gratitude in a way that is meaningful, yet easily integrated into our day?
Recently I discovered a simple strategy that helps me to be more mindful about my gratitude. I discovered this technique when my husband and I took the kids to their first movie. We had been talking about this upcoming adventure with the kids for days, talking about what it would be like and what we would eat at the movie theater, and how they needed to be good to ensure that they would get to go to the movies (yes, it served as a bribe at times :).
The morning of the movie outing was completely chaotic. No-one wanted to get dressed, we were running late before we had even started getting ready, and everyone refused to act happy and excited. There was sibling-to-sibling fighting, parent-to-child nagging, and parent-to-parent frustration. With each threat I delivered that we weren’t going to go to the movie I realized that my words had become completely empty. By the time we finally got in the car, I was thoroughly annoyed, and the only thought that kept running through my head was a self-pitying: “so much for trying to do something nice.”
I continued with my unpleasant, frazzled feeling as we bought our tickets, used the bathroom, and bought popcorn. We sat down, switched places a few times, and then sat down again. The kids threw their jackets at me and started asking for treats. As the lights went down I was still turning off my cell phone, gathering jackets and reaching for a tissue. The first preview came on and I was so busy with still trying to get settled that it took me a moment before I looked over and noticed that my kids were frozen, their eyes glued to the screen. I stopped moving around and watched their beautiful profiles as they stared ahead. I stared as my youngest laughed out loud at something in the preview. I watched as my oldest sucked on a fruit snack, eyes staring straight ahead at the screen. I glanced at my husband who sipped his soda and winked at me. I was flooded with a warm wave of love and gratitude.
I suddenly thought, this moment is good. That’s it. The moment was good. The moment before wasn’t, and I had no idea how the next one would be. But that moment was good.
Since that morning I have been trying to remember to name my gratitude in this, easy simple way. This moment is good. Sometimes I realize the moment is good when we are playing Uno together, or when we are laughing as we come into the house after a walk around the neighborhood. I won’t lie — I rarely name the good moments in the morning. But gratitude isn’t about pretending there aren’t hassles and stressors in our lives; it’s about recognizing what is good. What I love about this strategy is that it also brings my awareness to the moment — the only moment I have — the present.
This moment is good. Name it, use it, share it!
This post was originally published on hopefulmama.com on June 1, 2016.
Remember Pandora from Greek mythology?
Pandora was the first human created by the Greek gods who unleashed all the evils into the world when she opened a box that Zeus told her not to touch. Just as she realized that evils like greed, jealousy, anger, and plagues were flying out into the world from the box, she quickly closed the lid, catching one last thing before it could escape. That last thing, of course, was hope.
Psychologists have been researching hope for years, providing evidence that it is a useful, positive strength that everyone can apply to their lives. The most popular hope theory, developed by psychologist Rick Snyder, suggests that hope is about having goals for the future and navigating obstacles as you actively work towards those goals.
We all have goals, whether they are small (“I want to work out today”) or large (“I want to put more time into my relationship with my partner”). Inevitably, obstacles come in the way of these goals and sometimes we can get off-course. Hopeful people have the mental energy to stay focused on their goals, and they also find avenues to get around obstacles.
Hopeful people seek support from others, problem-solve, or tell themselves positive statements to keep them motivated. Sometimes they even modify their goals. Either way, they are able to pick themselves up and find other ways to tackle their challenges and keep moving ahead. Research also shows us that people who are hopeful are more satisfied with life, have higher academic achievement and are better able to manage physical and mental health concerns.
The beauty of hope is that we can teach it to others, model it for our kids, and work on building our own hope each day. How many times have you encountered an obstacle on the way to a goal? This is pretty much an hourly occurrence for most humans. We spill cereal in the morning, we’re running late to drop off the kids, we feel tired after a bad night of sleep, or we’re experiencing conflict with someone.
Obstacles are prominent in everyone’s lives, and being hopeful gives us a road map for how to navigate them and move towards our goals.
Below are some exercises to develop your hopeful road map:
1. Spend some time each day thinking about your goals. Try to identify the short-term goals that you want to get done that day, as well as the larger goals that you would like to work towards over the next days and weeks. Try to make sure they are realistic but don’t be afraid to dream big as well.
2. Talk with important people in your life about your goals, as well as theirs. Describe the obstacles that are coming up for you and brainstorm ways to support one another as you navigate the challenges.
3. The next time you face an obstacle, pause for a second and recognize it as such, reminding yourself that everyone faces obstacles towards the goals they want to achieve.
4. Consider how you want to model hope to your children. How do you want them to see you handling obstacles? Don’t be afraid to say your hopeful thoughts out loud (for example, “Okay, we can’t find the right building but we are going to ask for help and we’ll be able to find it. We’ll figure this out.”)
5. Periodically review your goals and see which need to be revised. Think carefully about which goals stretch you in positive ways, and which might not be realistic. Remember that part of the joy of hope is that you can adapt and create new goals if you need to!
This article was originally posted on hopefulmama.com on October 21, 2015.
Yes, the Fall semester is upon us. Summer is over and despite all my best intentions to come up with a summer plan to be super productive, I don’t feel like I got enough work done. Now I need to quickly finalize my syllabus, attend college and department back-to-school meetings, and start responding to the emails about reference letters that have already begun to fill my inbox.
It would be easy at a time like this to become sour and start to dread the semester, especially because we know it can be intense. In some ways, semesters are like marathons, where you give more for 15 weeks than you probably ever would during a normal “run.”
If the semester is like a 15-week marathon, it seems like we should be psyching ourselves up with positive thoughts, rather than pessimism and negativity. No-one starts a marathon thinking “this is going to be so awful,” right? They probably think it will be hard, they’re up for the challenge, and they’re going to do their best.
As I look ahead to my marathon of the Fall semester, I’m going to do all I can to start the race with a positive attitude. I’m not expecting that every day will be positive, or that I’ll be able to maintain my positivity through all of the challenges, but I want to at least have that as my starting point.
Below are some strategies for starting the semester off on the right foot:
Intentionality – Rather than watching the semester fly by like a kite being dragged by the wind, I’m going to be a little more intentional about my planning. First, I’m going to try and stop my work early (in other words, not when I’m already 10 minutes late for the daycare pickup), and “take stock” for a second. What priority tasks have to be accomplished the next day, and in what order should I tackle them when I arrive to the office? I’m also going to schedule a coffee or lunch meeting with a colleague every few weeks because I know that type of break will help me stay energized. And if I don’t put something on the calendar in advance, it will be November before I remember to even think about doing it!
Focus on Positive Colleagues and Conversation – I love venting as much as the next person, but I realize that after a while it can bring me down. Not to mention that I can also start to spread my own negativity and bring others down. My goal for this semester is to complain a little less, and to try and get extra time with those colleagues who lift me up (see Intentionality above). I’m also going to adopt one of Dr. Christine Carter’s 19 ways to reduce workplace stress: Stop talking about how busy and stressed I am. Dr. Carter reminds us that the more we talk about being busy (even if it’s just in our head), the more we’re actually training our brains to believe we should be freaking out.
Mix Things Up – There are positive things I sometimes want to try but hold back from doing because they sound like they will be too complicated, take up too much time, or adjust the family routine in some challenging way. Ironically, it may be just those things that I need in my month or semester to stay positive. Exercising early one morning while my husband gets the kids ready, scheduling a monthly get-together for drinks with a friend, using that gift card I got three years ago for a massage, or trying a new craft or cooking class. Why not treat one of these like an experiment in my life, and see how it works? Will it be disruptive or time-consuming? Maybe. Will it help with my self-care? Maybe. I’m guessing I’ll really enjoy it and it will give me that burst of positivity I might need, but I won’t know until I try…
What will be your strategies for starting Fall with positivity?
This article originally appeared on hopefulmama.com on 8/28/16.
This morning as I was driving my daughter to school my eyes darted to a house on the right side of the road just as we were approaching the parking lot. I suddenly noticed that there was a really large dog lifting his leg and peeing on a tree in the yard. My eyes went back to the road assuming I was the only one who had seen it, but then I quickly looked through my rear view mirror at my daughter and could tell she had also caught the scene. I asked, “Did you see that dog?” She burst out laughing and said “YEAH! It was peeing on the tree!” Then we both started giggling, really loudly.
I can’t explain why it was so funny, but it was. We laughed and laughed, and with each laugh I could literally feel the positivity pulsing through me. All the stress from the morning routine was gone, and all the anticipation of a busy day at work was gone. There was no discussion of how animals urinate, of how we don’t use potty words, or of anything else. It wasn’t a teachable moment; it was just a moment to enjoy. It was me and my precious girl, laughing our heads off about a dog peeing.
As I drove into work after dropping her off I found myself chuckling thinking about the moment. I told a colleague with kids about the story and we laughed together. And as I am writing about it right now, I’m smiling. I’m reminiscing, which is making me feel good. Social psychologist Fred Bryant calls this savoring, and his research suggests that savoring can help us maximize the positive effects of good experiences in our lives. He says savoring is like “swishing the experience around in your mind,” much like you’d do with a sip of wine in your mouth. By deliberately reliving the positive moment, or talking about it with others, you are bringing the memories back into awareness, along with the happy feelings associated with them.
The next time you find yourself laughing out loud with your kids or partner, or smiling with the happiness of a shared joy, take a mental picture of that moment. Later, when you need a burst of positivity, go back to that moment and swish it around in your head a bit. Enjoy!
This article was originally posted in Hopeful Mama on April 4, 2016.