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Hacking Holiday Stress

Zen Lotus. Acrylic on canvas. ArtjammingHK, Oct 2015.

We are more stressed than ever over the holiday season, according to the American Psychiatric Association annual survey. Many of us are having to work longer hours due to labor shortages, others may be experiencing stress over family or relationship tensions, and yet others worry that money is tight.

It’s really a perfect set up for us to want to escape into our avoidance behaviors, whether your vice of choice is overeating, overdrinking, overworking, gaming, scrolling social media/Netflix or even over exercising. Notice how some of these behaviors are more socially acceptable than others, depending on who you hang out with.

Invisible pain

I think of stress as being a kind of invisible pain. It’s like a messy basket of emotions about stuff like money, work, relationships, and so on. And even though that pain is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, it does accumulate day and night, drawing on our emotional reserves and cluttering up our brains with intrusive thoughts and worries.

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What’s worse is that when we are feeling these stressful feelings, we somehow automatically pile on more stress. We judge ourselves for being inadequate, worrying, or feeling frustrated. We blame ourselves and tell ourselves that we should be tougher and less emotional. We shame ourselves for having such feelings, and for not being better at dealing with life.

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And it’s not as if it helps. We know this because we would never dream of speaking so harshly to a child or a loved one who was in pain. We know intuitively that judging, blaming and shaming can only intensify the pain, and so instead we listen. We let them tell us about their pain because we know that it helps to share. We let them cry or scream, or whatever they need to do. We sit with them and hold the space, soothing their fears and connecting physically through hugs or by touching a hand or shoulder.

I knew how to take care of others’ emotional pain, but when my own stress that way

For so many decades as a primary care doctor, mom/sister/friend, I knew how to take care of others’ emotional pain. But when it came to my own stress, I just didn’t see it that way. I believed that showing compassion would be weak or soft. And that I had to punish myself for mistakes, or else I would never learn to be better. I was constantly at the mercy of my inner critic/drill sergeant Milly’s toxicity.

Stress messes with us

What I see now is that it took so much energy to deal with all the invisible pain I was carrying around. I was always so busy trying to escape my stress, believing that if I tried harder, planned my time better, or got more productive, that I could feel better. But really it was a vicious cycle of higher expectations leading myself to more pressure and stress, which drove me to avoiding behaviors like overeating and overworking.

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I didn’t connect my stress with symptoms in my body at the time, but now I see that it showed up as aches and pains in my body, keeping me awake at night. And what’s worse, it was interfering with my brain function. I told myself that not sleeping well was just an occupational hazard for doctors, not realizing that stress can affect memory, executive function and problem solving. And of course this is why so many healthcare professionals experience depression, anxiety and burnout.

Boundaries are honest

And predictably, every year when the holidays rolled around, it felt like someone had their button on the fast forward button. Because I would pile on more expectations for myself: gifts, decorations, cooking, baking, hosting, attending social functions, family photos and greeting cards. I made myself responsible for making everyone around me happy, just as my neighbours and all the other moms did..

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This sense of responsibility for making others happy had been handed down over generations, and it took a lot of coaching for me to learn that I could only be responsible for my own feelings. We can influence people around us through our actions, but ultimately no matter how hard we are trying, only they can decide how they want to feel. About us, or about anything happening in their lives. I learned that recognizing these kinds of boundaries in relationships was liberating not only for me, but also for the other person.

Because not having boundaries keeps us stuck in patterns of behavior that promote a subtle kind of inauthenticity that can be stressful. For example, when I gave my mom a sweater for Christmas, I expected that it would make her happy, And I was actually putting pressure on her to react in a way that would make me happy. In other words, I was giving the sweater with the expectation that I would get to feel happy when my mom told me how much she liked it.

Recognizing boundaries in relationships was liberating for both of us

But that’s actually setting up a kind trap for us both. Because what if my mom didn’t like the sweater? It could be that she always felt too hot and didn’t wear sweaters. Or maybe it wasn’t her color. However she actually felt about the sweater, my mom might feel obligated to act as though she liked my gift in order to avoid hurting my feelings. Happens all the time, right?

But what if it wasn’t possible for my mom to “hurt my feelings” by telling me that the sweater wasn’t right for her? What if she and I had the kind of relationship where we could openly share our likes and dislikes without fear of hurting each others’ feelings. I’m so grateful to have that kind of authentic and honest relationship with my mom, where I can give a gift with no attachment or expectations, and she can let me know what she really loves or doesn’t.

Your (secret) desires

I have learned that for me, the holidays are about connecting deeply with those that I love. I want to be present to listen and to laugh, to touch and to be deeply touched. As my coach Caryn says, it’s about presence, rather than presents.

Photo by Seema Miah on Unsplash

And being present for my loved ones means saying “no” a lot. I won’t be socializing for the sake of networking, I won’t be gifting out of obligation or with expectations, and I won’t be worried about sending out a super late Chinese New Year holiday mailing.

What are your secret desires? Can you give yourself permission to steal an hour or two of “me time” to take care of yourself? I create zen moments by having compassion for myself when I hear Milly telling me how I should be during family gatherings. It’s simple but not easy to build your resilience through the skills of mind mastery.

Did you know that you can learn more by watching Dr Em’s Hacking Holiday Stress webinar? Check out the video replay for tips and key takeaways!


Hacking Holiday Stress webinar replay

Did you know that you can learn more by watching Dr Em’s Hacking Holiday Stress webinar? Check out the video replay for tips and key takeaways!

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