What You See is What You Get
Even people who love the holidays may struggle with stress or overcommitment, and for some, holidays are very difficult, especially after suffering a loss. We are presented with a Norman Rockwell vision of what the holidays should be, and when ours don’t measure up, feelings of disappointment or sadness can ensue.
To compound the problem, people might blame themselves for not feeling festive. However, there are many concrete reasons people often struggle with anxiety or depression during the holiday season. (Robert Hales, chair of the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences)
With the advent of winter and the end of daylight savings time, there is less sunlight. With dark mornings and shorter days, just like animals, we experience changes in mood and behavior. We tend to eat and sleep. This can be a cozy time, but people who struggle with depression will often feel it more in winter. Which is why getting outside in the light can be especially crucial during this time.
During the holidays, people often consume more alcohol as a part of their celebrations at work and with friends and family. Moderation is always key, but also check in with how you’re feeling. If you don’t feel festive that is okay. There is no need to use alcohol to mask your mood. Accept your inner experience and do not force yourself to express specific feelings. Any emotions that you experience, including sadness and anger over the loss of a loved one, or annoyance with family members who are critical or judgmental, are valid. Chemically altering our perceptions and reactions at a time that can be so full, and yet so challenging, is not a productive choice. The physical, mental and emotional hang-over can only add to the holiday blues.
Also this time of year, there is a tendency for all of us to eat too much, and to not sleep or exercise enough. Just like alcohol, we may be masking our feelings with food, or perhaps we are just tempted by all the exceptional treats! Only you know the amounts and types of food that are right for your body. Stay tuned into how you feel and be mindful. Because of our busy holiday schedules, we may get less sleep, which can leave us feeling tired and lethargic, and less able to deal with whatever comes our way. So make sleep a priority, at all times, but especially during this time of year. Similarly, because of weather, people often exercise less during the holidays. Exercise is a known preventive activity for depressive symptoms, so make sure to move your body.
But who has time for sleep?! There is so much to fit in with travel, gift-buying, decorating and socializing. We try and see as many people as possible, especially those that we have not been able to see during the year. You may feel rushed and burdened by the need to interact with so many over such a short period. Don’t overbook yourself. Limit the number of interactions and think carefully about who you choose to see. Look for enjoyable activities that are low-stress, like driving around at night to view holiday decorations or attending local choral events.
More than any other time of year, the holidays are when we tend to overspend. A poll of more than 1,000 adults by the Principal Financial Group — a global investment company — found that 53 percent of people experience financial stress due to holiday spending, despite the fact that more than half set budgets for their holiday spending. There is no need to add financial stress on top of everything else. Make a realistic budget and stick to it. Remember, the holidays are not about how much you spend.
Even more than the money, people tend to get stressed out by the idea of finding the perfect gifts! It is not uncommon to see people running around malls at the last minute because they delayed purchasing gifts. Gifting then feels like a burden rather than a joy. Keep a list going throughout the year as gift ideas pop into your head, and set aside money each month toward making these a reality. If you haven’t implemented these practices yet, just keep it simple. You can always bake something or make something by hand. Whatever feels like fun to you!
Any stress, or anxiety or depression will only be exacerbated if we are carrying around unrealistic expectations about ourselves and others. Don’t label the holidays as a time to cure all past problems. The holidays do not prevent sadness or loneliness. If we set the bar too high and try to accomplish too much, we might feel disappointed and focus on our failures rather than our successes. As we interact with friends and family we can get caught up in comparisons and self-judgment. Perhaps we are trying to live up to the perfect families we see in the media. Or perhaps we feel bad about our accomplishments compared to those of family and friends. Try to be realistic and emphasize your family’s and your own strengths rather than weaknesses.
It is important to be open to new traditions. You may have an image of what you think the holiday should be, and this may not be what’s actually happening. Allow new traditions to unfold. If you can’t be with your loved ones in person, find creative ways to be together. Plan a video call or send sweet pictures and texts! Try to surround yourself with those you care about, and if certain family members cause you emotional distress, limit the time you spend with them. There is no rule that says you need to spend several days visiting with toxic family members.
Before you focus on others, make sure to take care of yourself. We frequently neglect ourselves during this time, and self-care is especially important. Make sure you tell family and friends your specific needs, especially if you have suffered a loss or are finding the holidays difficult. And then, once you are taken care of, you can shift your focus from consumption and rushing around, to service and gratitude. There are so many opportunities to be of service at this time of year-- Hold the door open for someone with packages, perform random acts of kindness, keep your cool in traffic or volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter.
Focusing on service and gratitude is an example of how we can “create our own reality.” We hear this all the time, but what does it really mean and how do we do it? (Kathy Gottberg, Huffington Post) This is not a new-age concept. Rather, the idea is found in ancient texts from all traditions.
The Buddha said, “What you dwell upon you become.”
Jesus said, “It is done unto you as you believe.”
Hindu mysticism from Shankaracharya says, “Whatever a person’s mind dwells on intensely and with firm resolve, that is exactly what he becomes.”
It says in the Talmud, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
More recent sages like Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We become what we think about all day long.”
Wayne Dyer says, “You see it when you believe it.”
Oprah repeats this message frequently by saying things like, “Remember, you are co-creating your life with the energy of your own intentions.”
The concept of “creating our own reality” has also been proven by science! Modern physics has demonstrated a unity between the observer and the observed. The person conducting the experiment (the observing consciousness), cannot be separated from the observed phenomena. A different way of looking causes the observed phenomena to behave differently. Therefore, every moment, your consciousness creates the world you inhabit. (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now).
What we focus on becomes our reality. My friend Kim Hiles (P.E. for the Soul) tells a story about her teacher telling her for the week to see how many beat-up, junk cars she could see. She reported back that she had seen a lot! The teacher asked how many Mercedes she saw, and she couldn’t remember seeing one. The next week the teacher said to count how many Mercedes she saw. And of course, she saw lots of Mercedes and not many beat up cars!
So we decide what we see, by what we focus on, but additionally, there is a direct correlation between what we think and what we feel. (Melody Beattie). If we think something is awful, we will feel awful, and it will never get better. This kind of “disaster thinking” is an example of how we create our own suffering with our thoughts. This is a fundamental thing to understand in order to create our own reality.
One moment, we could be sitting on the couch, drinking coffee and eating chocolate and having a wonderful time. Then we get a hurtful text or a thought enters our head about something someone said to us the day before, and suddenly we feel disturbed, our body tightens and we feel upset. If we look at this closely, nothing has changed from the moment before we got the text or had the thought until the moment after.... except our thoughts. And the good news is we have control over those! Why would we want to nurture thoughts that make us feel miserable? Why do we want to be affected by things that are not in our present reality?
Worrying doesn't do any good. It's true, there are times when we will have to have difficult conversations or work through challenges in our lives, but what would consume maybe five minutes of our time, we often allow to consume literally years of our life by obsessing and worrying-- often about things that happened long ago or may never come to pass.
"Inner peace begins the moment you choose not to allow another person or event to control your emotions." -Pema Chodron
There are so many things in life we have no control over-- most things, in fact. We age. People get sick. People die. People are acting out their own plays and have their own actions and reactions. So many things are beyond our control. But we have considerable control over how we relate to what happens to us. We can be mindful of our feelings and hold ourselves with kindness and compassion. We can accept what life brings us, rather than fighting life or always trying to fix or change ourselves. We can be more mindful of our inner critic and gradually replace it with an inner caregiver. There’s a big difference between being responsible for what happens to us versus being responsive to what happens. We can use what happens to learn and grow from our experience. We have the capacity to grieve, heal, and move on, even if it takes time.
If the idea of “creating your own reality” seems too radical to you, perhaps an even better way of thinking about it is that we create the experience of our reality each and every minute.
Why do we want to create our own reality in the first place? Many of us are drawn to the idea of creating our own reality for the sole purpose of creating a safer and more “controllable” life for ourselves. (Caroline Myss) That type of thinking will only lead to disappointment and disillusion because we don’t have control over other people or external events. Rather, by “creating our own reality,” by choosing where to focus our thoughts and energy, we begin to focus on what our lives can be if we live courageously, honestly and fully. Ask yourself, “Am I using it to access the bigger part of me, or the smaller, fearful part that just wants to be safe?”
What if creating our reality is less about making ourselves feel safe, protected and in control and more about trusting that we can be happy and at peace with the uncertainty of life no matter what occurs? Maybe it’s less to do with making sure everything works perfectly in our favor, and more to do with seeing everything, as it unfolds, as already perfect.
Set an intention to use the tools at your disposal to create the kind of holiday experience that you want this year. Commit to setting aside time to be alone… for self-care, rest and exercise. As you practice making good choices in your physical world, do not neglect your internal world. Release the things you can’t control, and become the watcher of your inner-dialogue. Rather than using this as another excuse to beat yourself up, know that whatever you think and feel has been thought and felt by countless others. Then simply guide your thoughts to your new holiday traditions…. Mindfulness, gratitude and service.
* (For further reading, check out Robert Hales, chair of the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Kathy Gottberg in the Huffington Post, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, P.E. for the Soul by Kim Hiles, Melody Beattie and Caroline Myss. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful authors and works.)