Reviewed by: Cynthia Corral, LCSW
Written by: Ashley Lawrence
With the ongoing global pandemic, heading into the holiday season may be a little overwhelming for those of us who also suffer from the winter blues, experience seasonal depression, or are contemplating visiting loved ones in long-term care facilities as well as those of us who have recently chosen to take additional precautions by canceling holiday plans with extended family and friends. While we all know the holidays will look different this year, there is still reason to celebrate!
“We tend to go into the holidays with expectations,” says UT Health Austin social worker Cynthia Corral, LCSW, who serves as the Clinical Manager of Social Work and Integrated Behavioral Health. “Sometimes, that expectation involves our vision of a perfect holiday, and when we don’t experience what we’ve envisioned, we find ourselves struggling with feelings of guilt, sadness, and even anger. By practicing mindfulness, we can embrace these emotions in a healthy way that does not take away from the joy we wish to experience.”
Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating nonjudgmental awareness in day-to-day life. Or, in other words, mindfulness is the ability to be aware of what is happening in your mind and body at any given moment and not become overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on. Our brain is programmed to detect and react to threats, and sometimes, our fight or flight response causes our brains to react before we’ve had a chance to examine the current situation. Mindfulness involves learning to be fully present so that we can respond wisely to things rather than just reacting.
“Mindfulness is something that can be practiced both formally and informally,” explains Corral. “Formal practice consists of intentionally carving out time each day, or a few times each week, to engage in a particular activity. The most common forms of formal practice include meditation and relaxation practices, such as guided breathing exercises. Informal practices consist of weaving mindfulness into your already existing routines. A great way to do this is by practicing gratitude. Practicing gratitude involves examining your present life or present day and, in that moment, taking your mind from focusing on the negative, or something that you think may be lacking, to finding something positive to reflect on.”
Formally practicing mindfulness involves regularly setting aside time to engage in mindfulness. There are several mobile apps and websites (see below) that can assist you with scheduling time to practice mindfulness throughout your day or week as well as provide you with guided exercises.
Formal mindfulness practices can include:
- Meditating: Find a quiet place to sit, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing.
- Participating in Guided Breathing Exercises: Take deep belly breaths that cause your diaphragm to extend fully before releasing your breath.
- Engaging in Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Tense your muscles as you breathe in and relax your muscles as you breathe out.
- Journaling: Annotate how you feel, what you’re thinking, and why you’re thankful.
Many of these formal practices can also be practiced informally.
Other informal mindfulness practices include:
- Paying Attention to Your Senses: Tune into the sights, sounds, and smells that you usually ignore and take time to think about the flavor of the food you taste and the texture of the items you touch.
- Processing Your Thoughts and Emotions: Acknowledge what you’re thinking and feeling objectively, without reaction or judgement.
- Expressing Gratitude: Think about what makes you grateful and express your appreciation.
- Living in the Present Moment: Focus on the present moment to improve your mood, brain functioning, and even reduce stress.
Food plays a major role during the holiday season. Practice mindful eating by paying attention to the smells, colors, and textures of the foods you eat, and take a moment to identify the different flavors you taste and sounds you hear as you chew your food. It is also important to listen to your body and eat only when you’re hungry. Your body will tell you what it wants, but pay attention to the “why,” making sure you’re not just eating because of something else that’s going on.
“Be more caring and compassionate with yourself during this time when you might need it most,” advises Corral. “But also take care of your body. Your body and your mind work together as one. As the holidays approach, focus on what you can control, such as making time to be active, getting a good night’s sleep, and eating a balanced diet. If you continue to feel overwhelmed, seek professional help. Establishing a relationship with a psychotherapist may prove beneficial to you, and you may only need the support certain times of the year or for a few months. Starting therapy doesn’t mean you have to become locked into a lifelong obligation.”
Mindfulness Resources and Support
Mindfulness takes practice, especially in today’s fast-paced environment where it’s easy to get distracted However, mindfulness is evidence-based and known for positively impacting health, happiness, work, and relationships. Mobile apps and websites can provide quick and easy access to resources and support when you need it. Many of these mobile apps and websites have built-in games and daily activities as well as diaries and logs to track your mood, the ability to set goals, and other helpful practices, such as visualization, mindfulness meditation, muscle relaxation, and shared breathing techniques.
Mindfulness mobile apps and websites:
- CBT-i Coach
- Guided Meditations
- Mindfulness Guided Audio, Videos, and Poetry
“The holidays can bring up a lot of emotions—both positive and negative, especially right now with the COVID-19 pandemic—and there’s no rule that says we can only feel one emotion at a time,” says Corral. “The important thing to remember is that there is no right way to celebrate. Imperfection is healthy and normal, and it doesn’t mean your holiday is going to be less enjoyable.”
Depending on your specific healthcare needs, a member of the Integrated Behavioral Health care team may be a part of your healthcare journey at UT Health Austin. You can make an appointment with UT Health Austin by calling 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or visiting online here.
Stay healthy and be safe this holiday season.