Stress and the Holidays

The holidays can be a really stressful time for a number of reasons. Shorter days with less sunlight, plus colder temperatures, beckon us to spend more time indoors in hibernation mode. Some people (including myself) experience Seasonal Affective Disorder as a result of the reduced exposure to natural light. Farm crops tend to be less abundant, as the land enters into a cycle of restoration and preparation for the spring.

Yet, in the midst of nature’s attempts for us to slow down, our busy lifestyles encourage us to hurry up and rush to the next holiday gathering, school event, or year-end work deadline. When my mother was still around (before her illness), she found the December holiday season to be the busiest time of the year due to school choir concerts, Christmas services at church, and parties (including ones where she was hired to provide music).

When I was in school, on top of all those other activities, I also had to turn in term papers, take final exams, and perform for music juries. I considered myself lucky when I managed not to become sick with a cold or other seasonal illness during this time of the year.

Then there were the expectations that I buy or make gifts for family and friends, as well as send out holiday greeting cards. Between the parties and the shopping, I usually ended up feeling frazzled by the time that I reached New Year’s Eve. Over time, I found that I preferred to spend New Year’s Eve at home, just to have a break from all of the activity. Yes, I’m an introvert.

Amidst all of this stress, it might be difficult to remember to practice self-care and enjoy some quiet time. Or perhaps worse, there can be a frustration when we want to take that time for ourselves but feel like we can’t.

This year, I’m taking a completely different approach. I’ll be spending the holidays in a meditative retreat. Rather than rushing from event to event, I’m going to slow down in a way that my mind and body craves. I’m curious to see what this experience teaches me and what emerges from the process of rebelling against the societal pressure to speed up right when nature is encouraging us to slow down.

Not everyone has the luxury of retreating from the holiday busy-ness, though. In fact, work, school, and family obligations can make this nearly impossible. There are still some basic things we can do to take care of ourselves during the holiday season, while going on with our otherwise busy lives.

Here are some tips to survive and thrive during this season:

  1. Working out or getting some kind of daily movement activity can keep us from putting on holiday pounds.
  2. Eating nutritionally balanced meals can give us energy and keep us functioning at our peak.
  3. Getting adequate sleep can help fight off seasonal colds.
  4. Saying no, rather than agreeing to participate in every single social obligation, can give us a sense of empowerment when it feels like we have no control over what’s happening in our lives.
  5. Choosing not to engage in lengthy political debates with relatives who have different viewpoints can keep us from getting angry or frustrated when we could instead be enjoying time with family.
  6. Practicing yoga can increase our flexibility when our bodies might be otherwise hunched over at a desk working on end-of-year deadlines.
  7. Writing in a gratitude journal can remind us of the many things that we’re thankful for.
  8. Making art or music can nurture our creative passions when we’re feeling stifled.
  9. Setting aside time for loved ones can help us to reconnect when we’re feeling isolated.
  10. Cutting back on gift-giving can reduce financial stress, resist the hyper-consumerism of our culture, and help the environment, too.
  11. Taking 15 minutes a day to meditate can clear our heads and keep us grounded when we’re feeling overwhelmed by a rush of activity. For me personally, this is my most important self-care practice during stressful times.

Even if you can’t do all of these things, perhaps it would be helpful to choose just three of them to focus on during this season. And if nothing else, closing one’s eyes and taking three deep breaths can be a centering practice to bring us back into the present moment when the mind is racing with thoughts about everything that needs to get done.

If all else fails, I remind myself that whatever I’m experiencing will eventually pass, or at least change. A few moments of focused breathing is usually enough to make a difference in my mood, and when I’m at my best, I find that I can actually appreciate the holiday stress.

Vocabulary that fires together wires together

There’s a neurological concept called Hebb’s Law that’s basically summarized as “neurons that fire together wire together.”  This principle explains why it is that, when we hear an old song on the radio, we might immediately be flooded with memories and emotions that remind us of our first loves, best friends from high school, or educational topics that we learned in childhood. All sorts of associations can surface when we encounter something from our past, even if it’s been years since we’ve thought about those past remembrances.

I find that the same is true with languages. I studied French in high school, college, and grad school, and I’ve also picked up a few other languages through friends and travels. I can speak at least a few phrases (if not more) in Spanish, German, Thai, Khmer (the language spoken in Cambodia), Ewe (an indigenous language in Ghana), Czech, Italian, and Japanese.

The thing that amuses me is that sometimes these phrases emerge randomly, out of nowhere and there are certain phrases that I associate with one particular language over the others. In a few instances, there are idiomatic expressions that I automatically think of in foreign languages before they come to me in English.

Recently, I was in a situation where I had to engage in a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak a word of English. While I spend most of my time thinking in English…and I’m aware of how my brain operates when it comes to other languages…I was still amazed at how quickly my “foreign” vocabulary came back to me.

Words that hadn’t crossed through my conscious mind in years suddenly popped into my head, and some words that I’d never even encountered managed to come out of my mouth. I was able to get through a technically complex conversation much better than I had anticipated, which really shouldn’t have surprised me, given that I’ve done this numerous times over the years.

This got me to thinking about how languages work in our heads. It’s similar to how my fingers remember how to play scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions on my flute or the piano, even when I haven’t really practiced these instruments in months. My fingers seem to go into autopilot and play things without me consciously thinking about what to do.

Just like language (which some people would argue includes the “language of music”), our brains have the capacity to come up with all sorts of associations without us making the conscious effort to cultivate those connections. This can include memories from childhood that have long since disappeared into the crevices of ancient memory.

While many of these associations can be beneficial, sometimes our mind’s ability to “connect the dots” can cause internal conflict or pain. Anyone who has ever heard a song that reminds them of a painful breakup or romantic rejection can relate to this.

We don’t always notice when our minds are making these connections, though. An example that I often use for illustration is the way my own brain responds when it hears loud, sudden noises. As an infant, I had a traumatic experience when a 4th of July performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (complete with booming canons to replicate battlefield explosions–check out the link for a recording) occurred on the same day that I fell onto the pavement and injured myself. As a result, for most of my life, I would be startled whenever I encountered an abruptly loud sound, even though my training as a musician had encouraged me to embrace those sounds. Just the sound of a balloon popping was enough to make me jump.

One of the things that we teach in Neurosculpting® is that we have the capability to rewire our brains. Meditation can help us to do this because, through that practice, we’re able to calm the fight-or-flight center before attempting to rewrite the narratives that hold us back.

So if there’s a particular belief or old story that is getting in the way of our ability to move forward, we can start to uncouple the associations that have been built up in our brains, including those unconscious connections. Hebb’s Law can be a beneficial thing, in the case of language recollection and communication.

But when we’re trapped under the weight of traumatic memories (such as my early childhood trauma due to the loud noise that I encountered at a 4th of July festival), it’s possible to rewire our brains so that the neurons that were previously firing together will no longer wire together.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to keep my language neurons firing and wiring in such a way that my French vocabulary sticks together, somewhat compartmentalized from my Spanish vocabulary. The alternative (which has happened on occasion) is that I start out in one language and then transition into another language. Given the strange looks that I’ve received when that happens, I try to keep the blending of languages to a minimum.