I woke up in the morning with indigestion. As I switched on the lamp on the bedside table with one hand, I popped two anti-acids into my mouth with the other. Here we go again. My fifty-third Christmas is less than a month away. This will no doubt be the most stressful Christmas season I have ever experienced. As if the holiday stress that usually accompanies this time of year is not enough, this year I will also technically be “homeless.”
Nine months ago we decided that it was time to downsize. We optimistically put our authentically renovated farmhouse here in the south of France, with 22 acres of meadows and woods, on the market. It was time to find somewhere to live where the maintenance was less physically challenging with our four horses and four cats. Two months later, the house was sold, but it took our buyer until now to secure his mortgage. It was an unbearably stressful time because we could not buy the house we wanted until we had sold our home. The owner of our dream house finally decided earlier this month that he was going to sell to someone else.
We have sold our house, and we shall have to move out. Now the two of us, our four horses and our four cats, have nowhere to go. Finding somewhere to rent with enough land for four horses here in deepest rural France, at this time of the year, is going to be extremely difficult. Same goes for buying another house. People here take their properties off the market during the winter. Also, it legally takes at least two to three months for a house sale to go through here, so even if we did find another house to buy, December and January this year is going to be unimaginably stressful, even without factoring in the usual Christmas holiday stress.
Something similar happened to us a few years ago, when we were between houses for 15 months. By trial and error, I developed a coping strategy during those suffocatingly stressful months and even wrote a book about it. It might well be a simple strategy, but it is not easy to implement. A certain amount of effort is required, as well as persistence, determination, focus and commitment.
As a medical doctor, I often saw patients suffering from stress-induced conditions in the weeks before Christmas. I advised them to:
Easy to say, but not so easy to do, as I know from personal experience. The first five suggestions are particularly challenging for most of us this time of the year. Most of us end up eating and drinking much more than we planned to do and then make desperate New year’s resolutions in an attempt to get back on the straight and narrow. Our sleeping patterns are disturbed because of all the late-night Christmas parties we (have to) attend. As for exercise, who has either the time or the will? Spending time in nature is not very appealing either when it has rained non-stop for weeks and going outside means slipping-and-sliding through ever-deepening mud.
The last suggestion can, at Christmas, have a negative instead of a positive outcome: we have to guard against too much of a good thing as spending time with friends and family, each with their own set of holiday expectations, can cause a lot of stress.
Nevertheless, these six suggestions remain the cornerstones of my own Christmas stress management strategy. I do my best to follow my own recommendations, sometimes with more success than other times. What never fails me — and this is especially efficient during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays — is to practice mindful gratitude and generosity.
The easiest way to get all the benefits associated with a daily gratitude practice is to keep a gratitude journal. The idea is to cultivate a gratitude habit. It usually takes six weeks to adopt a new habit. If you start the week before Thanksgiving and continue till the first week of January; you will have established a practice that will not only enable you to manage stress effectively during the Christmas holidays but also for the rest of the year. If you start today you will still be well on your way to a habit of gratitude by the new year. All you have to do is to write down what you are thankful for in your diary, every day.
Maybe you already tried to keep a gratitude journal but did not feel noticeably less stressed. You are not the only one who had that experience. The same thing happened to me. So I did further research and discovered that the full stress-busting benefits of daily expressing your gratitude depend on:
The Christmas holidays can be extremely stressful. But it is also a time when developing a gratitude and generosity habit can be easier than any other time of the year. Even in the most stressful circumstances, we can always find something to be grateful for. Even if it is only that we are still breathing. When I can’t think of anything that I am thankful for, I do a mindfulness meditation focusing on my breathing. It never fails to calm me down. It helps me to see my situation from a different perspective and to find solutions to my problems.
The only thing that really annoys me is that it took me nearly 50 years to figure out how effective a stress management strategy a gratitude practice can be.
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