Holiday Fear or Holiday Cheer?

Eggnog, mistletoe, gifts under a tree. The winter holiday season is filled with delights—until it’s not. If you’re dreading the end of the year, consider these mindful strategies to help you through.

Illustrations by Paula McGloin
  1. Pace yourself

What could be a time of serious rest and relaxation so often becomes just another race to get things done. Here’s a few tips to keep things on an even keel.

For five minutes, four times a day, stop briefly. (Even set these pauses in your phone or digital calendar.) Bring your attention to your breath and body in the moment, just as they are. And no need to think about your to-do list—it’ll still be there when you’re done.

Try passing on a few invitations this year. Pick one or two events that hold special meaning or importance, and enjoy the extra time that opens up in your schedule.

If you’re the host, consider a holiday potluck. It’s an opportunity for folks to share a meaningful recipe, and allows you to actually enjoy your company instead of stressing out over all that food preparation.

The pressure we put on ourselves to find the “perfect” gifts—the same ones that just add to the receivers’ mounds of stuff—can be a real killjoy. The focus on the thing can eclipse actually connecting with the people we’re buying for. This year, how about considering that the perfect present might just be your presence?

If you can focus your attention on the gifts already in your life, the holidays will likely be far more enjoyable and fulfilling.

  1. Avoid a family feud

Holidays are not the time to revisit old battles or to try to change someone’s political views. Instead, apply a light touch when it comes to relationships and subjects that trigger you. Stick to topics that everyone can agree on. Hold the intention of wishing everyone well, even saying silently, I wish for this person to be happy. Look for opportunities to offer a genuine compliment or kind word, or to lend a hand with a task. Joy on Demand author Chade-Meng Tan also suggests a dose of honesty and compassion toward yourself (Wow, this is really hard. But I’m doing my best). If nothing else, he adds, remember our shared mortality. If you consider that you may have a limited amount of time with someone, you may begin to view that person and the situation between you differently.

  1. Savor, don’t graze

There’s a reason why so many people embark on a diet or detox come January 1: All that holiday celebrating can add up—on your waistline, sure, but mostly in making you feel really off-balance. Too much sugar, alcohol, junk food, you name it, combined with missed workouts, late nights, and packed week-ends—it doesn’t take long to feel less than optimal in body and mind.

Psychologist and mindfulness teacher Christopher Willard suggests a few simple guidelines to discern between mindful and mindless indulgence this season.

It takes about 20 minutes for your mind to communicate feelings of satiety to the body. If you slow down when you eat, you’re less likely to overdo it. It also allows you to better experience the flavors and textures of your food. As a result, you may find you only need a bite or two to truly appreciate and enjoy a special treat.

Rather than eating based on emotional signals, such as boredom or nervousness, why not tune in to your body. Stomach growling, flagging energy, or feeling a bit lightheaded are all signals of hunger. Not knowing who to talk with at the company party isn’t. If you find yourself hanging out by the buffet because you don’t know what else to do, get yourself a glass of sparkling water, find someone you don’t usually talk with, and get to know them a bit.

Make yourself a proper plate of food instead of grazing mindlessly from passing hors d’oeuvres trays or the dessert table. Look and get curious about the offerings, and choose what you’d like to try before you fill your plate. Then, find a seat and enjoy your selections, taking time to experience the food—and the company and the atmosphere as well.

  1. Expecting the holiday blues?

For many of us, the holidays present a mixed bag of emotions. We always talk about celebrating and being with loved ones, but it can also be a tremendously lonely or painful time. This is especially true if you’ve recently experienced a loss. If the blues threaten to color the season, try taking some preventive steps. Attending to your needs is the highest form of self-care.

Know your triggers and take steps to minimize them. This might mean skipping certain events or limiting your interactions with some people. Maybe you need to make separate meals, filling up with nourishing foods, or bring a nonalcoholic beverage to enjoy at a party. Make it a point to get enough sleep and to fit in exercise. And what about alone time?

If you struggle with loneliness or sadness around the holidays, consider taking a retreat that supports your well-being and puts you around others who forgo the traditional celebrations.

  1. What do you appreciate?

Whether you follow a faith tradition or just enjoy the festivities, be mindful of the reason for the season. If you can focus your attention on the gifts already in your life, the holidays will likely be far more enjoyable and fulfilling. What are you grateful for, really? Not just the bigticket items, like enjoying good health or a loving partner. What about the small graces, the synchronicities that make life more interesting—reconnecting with an old friend via Facebook, a cool new project at work, the fact that your kid doesn’t need braces after all? These everyday things are often overlooked by our “bigger and better” mentality, but they’re what create richness in life. The more attention you bring to these seemingly trivial joys, the more of them you’ll notice, everywhere, even long after the holidays have passed.


One of the biggest sources of stress this time of year is that instead of getting a break from our normal busy lives, we usually fill them with more activity, more obligation, and more opportunities to get overdrawn. Self-care and pacing are key if you want to stay healthy and actually enjoy the holiday season.