Shouldn’t “holiday stress” be an oxymoron?

The emails are starting to arrive. “Holidays Stressing You Out?” says one. “Staying Healthy During the Holidays“, with managing stress as the first topic, reads another. What’s wrong with this picture? The word holiday suggests festivity, recreation, and a vacation mentality. The word stress suggests discomfort, a lack of balance, perhaps even unhappiness. These two words do not belong together.shiny tree

Someone once suggested to me that managing stress is all about managing expectations. While I don’t agree with that 100%, I do think it applies to holiday stress. Much of the stress around holidays comes from what might be considered unreasonable or unnecessary expectations:

  • The expectations we have about  spending time with family and friends.
  • The expectation that we have to give gifts to a specified list of people, and/or the expectation that  we have to spend a certain amount of money.
  • The expectation that we will eat and drink too much.
  • The expectation that we will hold on to traditions, even ones that aren’t serving us anymore.

Another way of putting this?  Too many shoulds, musts, oughts, have tos.

Tips for managing holiday stress are useful, but only as a second step. Like any kind of stress, managing stress around holidays has to start with values clarification, with doing some of the inner work.One of my yoga teachers has observed that for many of us, the default is to do as much as we possibly can, without asking ourselves if it is appropriate, or if we are suffering because of it.

What is values clarification? It could start with questions such as these:

  • What is most meaningful to me about this holiday?
  • What are the things or activities that bring me joy? Which cause me or others to suffer?
  • What do I need in order to be most fully present for the people I love?

When we do this kind of inquiry, we might be able to change our interaction with the holiday for the better. But like coping with any stress, that can’t happen unless we’re willing to make changes, and even rock the boat a little. Doing all the same things in the same old way won’t lead to any significant improvement.

Advice from healthfinder.gov
Advice from healthfinder.gov

Once you’ve clarified what’s important to you, and what is going to bring the most happiness to you and those you love, that’s the time to turn to techniques like the planning calendar, keeping up your exercise, and drinking more water. If you start with those things, without stopping to examine your values, you’ll find yourself returning to the default — just using prioritizing and planning as a way to cram more into each day. Even if one of those things you eke out time for is “relaxing”, it might not be as beneficial as it could be if you knew you were living each day in alignment with what’s truly important to you.

Can you wake up each morning during the holiday season knowing that the day will bring you something good? I know of someone who takes a moment before getting out of bed each morning to remember something positive about the day before, and something joyful to look forward to in the day ahead. Stress hormones are typically at a cyclical peak when we first wake up in the morning — so you could do yourself a lot of good by starting each day with a smile instead of a feeling of dread. That’s easier if you’re clear on what you value.

Let’s make “holiday stress” a thing of the past.

Something to teach, something to learn

Today I learned that my new yoga teacher is about to be a high school senior. I knew she was young, but not that young. She had just led us through a vinyasa flow class that was challenging, yet gentle; energetic, yet calming. Everyone thought it was great.

I am amazed by the grace and composure of this 17-year-old. When I think back to myself at that age, I can’t imagine even doing what she does, let alone doing it so well.

What makes a good teacher? Passion, confidence, knowledge? Along with those attributes, I believe that a good teacher cares deeply about her students, demonstrates it, and has the wisdom to know that there is as much to learn from them as there is to teach to them.

We benefit most as students when we let go of any expectations we have about what our teacher should be. Age, sex and size don’t define a talented yoga teacher, just as degrees and credentials don’t define talent in a college professor. Losing the words “should”, “ought”, and “must” from our vocabulary opens the door to invaluable experiences, and prevents a lot of the stress that comes from the belief that situations have to evolve in a certain way. Opening that door prepares us to engage, learn and make the most of what life, and our teachers, offer.

Certainly I used to be more rigid than I am today. From my children, I learned to be patient and adaptable. From my older relatives, I learned about dignity. From my friends, I learned to be compassionate and understanding. From my neighbors, I learned about community. From difficult people, I learned to forgive and let go.

Perhaps the most self-discovery comes when the lines between teacher and student blur, and we realize that there is something to be learned from everyone we meet. Every interaction is an opportunity to uncover something we already knew, but weren’t seeing. I only hope that I am able to touch other people the way my new yoga teacher touches me.