How to use mindfulness to reduce stress around Jewish holidays

While mindfulness can be a formal meditation practice, there are also informal ways to practice being more aware and accepting. Here are a few mindful tips for the holidays.

 Count your blessings - literally. (photo credit: KATERINA MAY/UNSPLASH)
Count your blessings - literally.

The upcoming holidays, a time when we may have preconceived notions about how we should feel during this period – happy, grateful, excited or content – is a time when many of us simply feel overwhelmed. Others experience loneliness, and still others are stressed out and can’t wait until aharei hahagim, after the holidays, when they will be able to “get back to life.”

As a result, many of us miss out on actually enjoying the moments before and during the holidays.

That feeling of being overwhelmed can come from figuring out whom to invite, especially if we have married children and limited space in the home. Or perhaps it comes from thinking about who will be insulted if not invited, or maybe being insulted ourselves because we were not invited somewhere else.

Feeling stress also comes from the need to shop for food, gifts and new clothing, from doing hours of cooking and preparing, and from feeling the need, where applicable, to get ready spiritually. Our minds are full of all kinds of concerns and thoughts, and often we just find ourselves distracted and physically and emotionally exhausted.

But what if there is another way to experience the holidays? 

Woman meditating meditation 390 (credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)Woman meditating meditation 390 (credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

What if we could acknowledge all of our worries and concerns but also be more connected, present, and focused in all of our preparations, and even enjoy them a little? 

What if we could be more patient and kind to ourselves and others rather than frustrated or critical about how we are – or are not – managing our tasks? 

What if we could be present in the moment, not fixated on the past or worried about the future?

Mindfulness” is a term that is heard a lot these days. It means paying attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way with openness and curiosity and learning to be more accepting of what is, or being aware of what we’re doing in real time as we do it. 

While mindfulness can be a formal meditation practice, there are also informal ways to practice being more aware and accepting. This can give us perspective and decrease stress.

Research shows that practicing mindfulness can help improve physical health, reduce stress and anxiety, improve concentration and sleep quality, and can also help us to enjoy life more by being more present in everyday moments.

HERE ARE a few mindful tips for the holidays:

1. Be realistic about your expectations.

As we gear up for the holidays, we often set the bar impossibly high for ourselves, and then feel upset when things don’t live up to those expectations. Perhaps good, and not necessarily amazing, can be good enough? 

Even before you start preparing, acknowledge that things may not go exactly as planned, and that it is okay if everything isn’t perfect. Notice when you are being overly critical of yourself, and try to let go of negativity. No one is perfect. Imperfection is normal and even healthy. All of us are imperfect, and we are all in the same boat.

2. Be kind to yourself – and to others.

You can’t change how others deal with the stresses of the holiday season, but you can change how you respond in different situations. For example, when I encounter a person being difficult, I try to tell myself, “This person is having a hard time, and that’s why s/he is acting this way.” It softens my reaction and helps me to be more compassionate. It also reminds me that it’s not personal, it’s not about me, it’s about something the other person is going through. 

As for yourself, be as kind to yourself as you might be to someone you care about. Amid all the preparations and commotion, do something nice for yourself: meet a friend for coffee, take a walk, putter in the garden or buy yourself something new for the holidays. 

3. When you feel yourself getting stressed, stop and take a few deep breaths.

Those few breaths can help you pause before you react, give you a new perspective and perhaps soften your reaction. 

4. Count your blessings... literally.

At the end of your day, write a couple of things down that you are grateful for today, and be specific. This doesn’t mean that you can’t acknowledge when things aren’t going your way and that not everything you are experiencing is a blessing. What it does do, however, is put things in perspective. You can be grateful for what you have, even as you actively work on changing things that you’re unhappy about.

When you focus on the blessings you have in your life, you will have less time and energy to focus on the negatives.

5. Express your gratitude to others.

We all like to be appreciated. 

TO HELP cope with the holiday stress once it arises, and it will arise, here is a short mindful awareness of the breath meditation that you can try anytime, anywhere:

  • Take a few moments when you know you won’t be disturbed and sit in a chair or on a cushion. 
  • Make sure you’re comfortable and your body has enough support. 
  • Sit up straight, with your shoulders relaxed. 
  • You may keep your eyes open, but you may find it easier to maintain your focus if your eyes are closed. 
  • Take a moment and notice the contact that your body makes with the surface that you’re sitting on. 
  • Take a few breaths. Observe the natural flow of your breath – the in-breath and the out-breath. You don’t need to control your breath in any way. Breathe naturally. Be aware of the pauses between the breaths. 
  • Notice where you feel your breath in your body. It might be in your abdomen or in your chest or in your nostrils. See if you can feel the sensations of the breath, one breath at a time. 
  • When your mind wanders to thoughts, plans or worries, gently bring your attention back to simply observing your breath. 
  • Stay there for five minutes, or longer if you want. 
  • Try making an intention to do this practice on a regular basis.

Mindful breathing is a simple, gentle way to help you deal with stress and negative emotions, improve focus, and calm yourself when your temper flares, and before you react in an unhealthy way. It is as effective during the holiday period, with all its inherent stress, as it is all year round. 

May we all be inscribed for a happy, healthy, mindful New Year! ■

The writer is a psychotherapist and certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher, and teaches eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction courses in Jerusalem.