While the holiday season can be an extremely joyful time, many people report a rise in stress, anxiety and depression during the holiday season. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 64% of people surveyed endorsed having the “holiday blues” (defined as “temporary feelings of anxiety or depression during the holiday season”).
When it comes to the holiday blues, many possible factors are cited, including the added financial stress, time with family, old memories, and even seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Some “symptoms” of the “holiday blues” include headaches, overeating, excessive drinking and insomnia. If you search “mental health and the holidays”, you’ll find a plethora of articles detailing signs and symptoms, facts and figures and offering various tips and techniques to help combat this holiday slump.
That being said, I have yet to find an article on this topic from a perspective of Buddhist psychology. I couldn’t help but wonder what sage advice the Buddha might have on how to best care for your mental health during this time of year. Read on for some tips and techniques:
Drop the story.
A central aspect to Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist psychology is that suffering stems from the mind. Our skewed and often delusional perceptions about the world cause us a great deal of stress. For example, our minds often create stories around what the holiday season “should” look like, how we “should” feel or what we “should” be doing during this time of year. We pull from others’ experiences and constantly compare our own holidays to some constructed ideal we have in our minds. The good news: we are in control of our perception, and therefore able to change this type of thinking. So this year, rather than being at the mercy of some story in your head – with all the “should”s and comparisons – try to have what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”, and approach the holiday season with a blank canvas, curiosity and compassion.
Another essential aspect of Buddhist psychology is mindfulness. Mindfulness is most often defined as “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness”. This skill pertains to the idea of being engaged, focused and present, with all of your attention and senses involved in whatever it is that you’re doing. In some ways, mindfulness is really mind-LESS-ness: it’s a quieting of the ever-present mind chatter that so often distracts us from the here and now. Staying mindful allows us to be fully present and avoid feeling overwhelmed by too many co-occurring thoughts or experiences.
Not just how you typically breathe, but breathe with intention, on purpose. Deep belly breathing – where you inflate your diaphragm like a balloon as you inhale and deflate the diaphragm as you exhale – is one quick and easy way to calm the mind. Deep, slow breathing – especially breathing with a longer exhalation – deactivates the sympathetic nervous system (the system of “fight or flight”, adrenaline and cortisol) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest. Breathing is also extremely helpful in terms of mindfulness: the breath is often used as an anchor to guide our wandering mind back to the present moment. Another great breathing technique is “Nadi Shodhana”, or “alternate nostril breathing”. Click here to read more about how to do this calming technique.
Nourish Your Mind/Body/Spirit.
Stressful times call for an increase in our self-care (despite the fact that many of us tend to let self-care go when things get hectic). Self-care includes anything and everything that helps you rest and recharge, on all levels. In terms of your mind, this could be meditation, mindfulness or reading your favorite books or magazines. For your body, self-care means getting adequate sleep, physical activity and nutrition (as well as any pampering activities you find particularly nourishing). And in terms of your spirit, self-care can often mean some quiet time alone, sitting in silence, praying or connecting to your understanding of a Higher Power. Whatever your personal self-care routine may be, don’t forget boundaries: it’s important to honor and protect the time necessary to care for your self!