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  • Ashley Farrar

Five Tools for Holiday Overwhelm

No matter what you celebrate, the holidays can be hard. The holidays have been complicated for me ever since my mom, uncle, and then dad a few years later, died suddenly.


I have had years where I was like a walking shell over the holidays, years where the act of decorating felt impossible, and years where I’ve been able to both embrace the cozy holiday things and grieve the past and lost future. It has not been an upward trajectory since they died. Every year is a new, sometimes surprising, experience.


I have spent a lot of time and energy making Christmas work for me. We have severed old traditions in favour of new traditions. I have changed how much I schedule for myself in the months ahead of the holiday. I have entered each year with the knowledge that I get to make new decisions, regardless of what choices I made the year before. And, I know that whenever I’m ready to embrace the things I’ve set aside… I can.


I still get irritable at some point in the October to December timeframe. It still feels raw when I think about it all. I still cry. I still long for my parents. I feel overwhelmed sometimes trying to manage the rest of my life while amidst these feelings…. okay, a lot of times.


And, I’ve also learned so much about my strength and resilience. I’ve practiced mindfulness. I’ve learned what tools work best for me. I’ve learned how to forgive myself for mistakes. I’ve started the journey of self-acceptance, and know what tools help me to get closer to loving my whole self. I’ve learned how to include the light and the dark all at the same time.


So, this year, I’m going to share five tools that have been/are helpful for me in managing stress and overwhelm over the holidays (and, you know, really, anytime at all). Each of these tools works best if you first practice them when you’re not overwhelmed. Practice often when you’re feeling relatively calm.


These won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. So if you try and them and they don’t work, or you don’t like them, know that there is something else out there that will work for you.


1. Square Breathing


Turn your attention to your breath. Notice where you feel your breath in your body. Notice the temperature of your breath as you inhale, and again as you exhale. Notice the pace of your breath.


Then, start your box breathing. Inhale through your nose for 4 counts. Hold for 4 counts. Exhale through your mouth or nose for 4 counts. Hold for 4 counts.


Anytime your attention wanders, without judgement, notice any thoughts that are arising, and then turn your attention back to your breath.


2. Inner Resource


Think of a special place where you feel comfortable and secure. It might be a place you’ve been to before, or a place in your imagination that helps you to feel warmth and relaxation.


It might be a room, or a place in nature. When you’re in this place, nothing can disturb you. Imagine being in your inner resource with all of your senses. Noticing any sounds, smells, tastes, and colours that you see. Notice if there are any plants, people, or animals with you.

Sense any feelings of security, ease, wellbeing, warmth, or relaxation.


Anytime that you feel upset, overwhelmed, bothered, or disturbed, immerse yourself back into your inner resource.


3. Notice Thoughts and Emotions


Tip: This can sometimes be very challenging. Make use of your inner resource, and know that you can return to your inner resource at any time as you observe and feel your thoughts and emotions. If it is too much for you right now, that’s okay. Respect what your body is telling you.


Notice an emotion that is arising. Notice it without judgement. Notice where you feel it in your body, and allow yourself to feel it. Pause to immerse yourself in the feeling. Then, allow yourself to feel the opposite emotion (for example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, invite in feelings of serenity). Allow your awareness to shift between your original emotion, and it’s opposite a few times. Then, allow yourself to hold both emotions in your awareness at the same time. Now, let go of both emotions, without wishing that the experience was any different.


Notice a thought that is arising. Observe the thought, without judgement. Imagine that this thought is true. Notice what it feels like when you take this thought to be true. Notice where you feel it in your body. Then, imagine that the opposite is true. Notice what it feels like when you take the opposite to be true. Where in your body do you feel it? Allow yourself to shift between your original thought and its opposite a few times. Allow yourself to simultaneously hold both the thought, and its opposite in your awareness. Notice what it feels like to hold both thoughts in your awareness at the same time. Watch both thoughts drift away, without judging or wishing that the experience was any different.


4. Create a Pleasant Experience


Create a pleasant experience for one of your senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, vestibular, or proprioceptive). For example, rock in a rocking chair, give yourself a bear hug, feel the warmth from a fire, or light a candle and watch the flame flicker. Be creative!


5. Self-Talk


Use self-talk to guide you through your tough moments. Remind yourself that:


  • It’s okay to set boundaries, even if other people don’t like them

  • Other people’s thoughts and behaviours are about themselves, not you

  • It’s okay to take breaks

  • You are allowed to say no as often as you need to

  • You don’t have to feel good all of the time. Negative feelings and emotions are part of the human experience

  • It’s okay to make mistakes, it makes you human

  • You don’t have to change who you are to make other people happy

  • Other people don’t have to understand your choices

  • Other people’s opinions of you are just their perception, not fact

  • Your thoughts, are just perception, not fact


No matter if the holiday season feels wonderful to you, challenging, or somewhere in between, know that it’s never selfish to do the things that you need to do, to nurture your mind and body.

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Woodstock, Ontario, Canada

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