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Life Coach Tal Fagin Provides Guidance to Your Quandaries
Tal Fagin

Pressures of the Holidays

Life coaching expert Tal Fagin responds to a stressed-out reader who dreads the upcoming holiday season and offers them seven simple strategies for surviving and thriving through it all.

Dear Coach,
I am not sure who ever said Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year,” but in my experience, it just isn’t. Each year I go in feeling cheerful and optimistic, but that usually lasts about as long as the Thanksgiving leftovers. Between the frigid temperatures, the excessive spending, the endless slew of holiday parties and way-too-much family time, I usually crawl into January feeling exhausted and frazzled, broke and alarmingly soft around the middle.

Do you have any advice for surviving the holiday season — preferably without my stress level soaring, my bank account plummeting or my weight climbing to all new and terrifying heights?

Bracing for the Holidays

Dear Bracing for the Holidays,
I totally relate!

Last December, I found myself in a similar frame of mind. It was just a week after Thanksgiving, but already I felt the pressure building. The December calendar was chock full of celebratory, supposedly fun events, but my mood was dreary and my body felt dumpy. Already.

So I did what any self-respecting life coach would do. I devised a plan.

It worked so well, I shared it with all of my friends, and I am delighted to share it with you now. Of course, all of these tools are useful year-round, but they are especially helpful around the holidays. Follow these seven simple strategies for surviving and thriving the holiday season, and you, too, can …

                                   B.E. M.E.R.R.Y.

B is for Breathe. Call it meditation, call it watching your breath, call it a pause or a time out or any or all of the above.   Whatever you call it, make sure you DO it. As far as strategies go, it does not get simpler than this. More importantly, it works!

Have you ever noticed how times of stress cause you to hold your breath? Ever caught yourself sighing heavily in exasperation? Whenever you feel overwhelmed, anxious, tense or set-to-blow, just breathe. Deep, slow breathing is your body’s way of calming your nervous system, reducing stress, increasing alertness and boosting your immune system. It helps you get centered, grounded and back in balance.

E is for Exercise. In the words of the great Reel 2 Real, You’ve got to move it, move it! It matters not whether you run or walk, bike or hike. You can swim laps, salute the sun, shake your booty at Zumba or pant your way through crossfit. Whatever your workout of choice, keep it up. If you haven’t found one yet, or if regular exercise is not part of your life, I would urge you to reconsider. Not only is some kind of regular exercise essential to your physical health (and keeping your weight in check), but it is the absolute best way to boost your mood.

Numerous studies show that exercising releases happy chemicals in our brains, also known as endorphins. Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body and an improved outlook on life, aka a natural high. Regular exercise has also been proven to reduce stress, improve self-esteem and confidence, ease anxiety, fight insomnia and help you feel more energized, capable and confident.

If you don’t know all of this already, you have clearly been trapped under something heavy since the 1980s. I am willing to bet my leg warmers, however, that you know it all too well but can’t always be bothered to do it. When it comes to exercise (as well as other more intimate physical activities), I generally advise friends and clients to adopt the Nike approach:

Just Do It.

M is for Moderation. Indulge and imbibe! Celebrate and spend!  Just do it all sensibly and in moderation. Gather round the cheese plate, just don’t stay there all night. Join your boss in raising a glass to a successful year, but avoid the embarrassment and regret of overdoing it. Shower your family and friends with tokens of love and appreciation, but don’t go bankrupt in the process.

You get the idea. Enjoy the season, just not too much.

E is for Embrace Reality. My mother called it managing expectations. My father called it keeping your head screwed on right. Tara Brach wrote a whole book about it with Radical Acceptance. Byron Katie did the same in Loving What Is. To paraphrase Katie, “When you argue with reality, you lose — but only 100% of the time.” In other words, stop trying to change everyone and everything, you are only hurting yourself in the process.

Perhaps your father should be less of a hot head, your sister should be less sensitive or your husband should be less selfish. Perhaps you should be smarter, stronger, more productive or less anxious. Whatever it is you believe should be, ask yourself this: How does your insistence on that alternate reality play out in your life? How does it cause you to behave? To treat others? To treat yourself? How is it serving you?

Failure or refusal to accept things as they are never changes the situation about which you are so upset, it simply causes added suffering as you rail against it again and again. It also blocks you from imagining creative, possibly helpful, new approaches. Most likely, while you are busy arguing with reality (even if only in your own mind), you adopt a defensive posture. Perhaps your shoulders tense, your fists clench or your throat tightens. Perhaps your heart pounds or your mind races with angry fantasies. This is your body’s fight or flight response, an indication that you feel threatened in some way. This is useful when you are under attack, but often detrimental when interacting with relatives or friends.

On the other hand, imagine yourself free from these expectations. Who might you be if you could embrace and accept your life and the people in it as they are (yourself included), as opposed to how you think they should be?

It is hard to enjoy much of anything, let alone the holidays, when you are tense, tight, gripping and defensive. Instead, try letting go of unrealistic expectations and impossible demands. Try relaxing into the moment and embracing your life – and your holidays – as they are.

This works especially well when coupled with …

R is for Reflect Upon The Good Stuff. Ample scientific evidence establishes that focusing on the positive—making note of the things in your life for which your are grateful—trains the brain to look at the world from a more positive perspective. This, in turn, makes you a happier, more optimistic and more enthusiastic human being.

We tend to think that it is the circumstances of our lives which dictate our level of happiness. According to scientific studies, however, our happiness levels depend 50% on our genetics, ONLY 10% on our personal circumstances and a whopping 40% on our intentional daily activities – those thoughts, behaviors and activities which we choose with our own volition. (You can simply take my word for this, or for a more thorough explanation, check out The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, by Sonja Lyubomirsky).

We can’t change our genetic set point. Occasionally we can change our circumstances, but more often than not, we have the most control over our attitude and outlook. And the great news? Current research proves that happiness is achieved and sustained through intentional habit changes, even more than circumstantial changes. One of the easiest of these habit changes is a daily gratitude practice.

It’s as simple as could be, and all it takes is a few minutes a day. Try listing three to five things for which you are grateful each morning when you wake up, or each night before drifting off to sleep. Start there, and before you know it, gratitude and positivity will be a reflex, and increased happiness and well-being will be yours.

R is for Rock Out. You know that feeling, when you’re driving along in the car and your favorite tune comes on? You instinctively turn up the dial and feel twenty years younger, a sense of freedom, joy and vitality replacing whatever icky blah feeling you had before. Just like exercise releases endorphins, music is believed to release dopamine, a feel-good chemical that plays a key role in mood enhancement.

Whether it’s classical or disco, old time Rock n Roll or your favorite pop sensation du jour—whatever genre does it for you, I highly recommend you make a date to put on your favorite tunes and blast them. Include your family, your friends, your partner or your dog. Or just lock yourself in the basement like a teenager and shut out the world.

Y is for You Do You. Part of what is so stressful about family and relationships is some false belief about who we have to be in the presence of others. Whether we are aware of it or not, many of us voluntarily assume certain roles, then go around resenting others for “not letting us” be ourselves.

I have one client who practically crawls up into a ball of anxiety and despair every time her mother comes to visit. The self-inflicted paralysis invariably begins two weeks prior to her mother’s arrival.

“You don’t understand my mother,” she tells me. “Everything has to be a certain way, especially at the holidays. I have to get out the good china, set a beautiful table, make the perfect meal. My children have to be polished and impeccable, too. I can’t invite friends, lest they commit some crime (like bringing a store-bought dessert). I can’t even wear pants!”

The only thing more impossible to imagine than making her mother proud, is abandoning the effort to do so.

In my own life, I have wasted years trying to squeeze myself into parts that didn’t quite fit, trying to please parents, friends and others by being the person I thought they wanted me to be, all the while, feeling resentful, misunderstood and disconnected. As it turned out, when I finally began showing up as my true self — ripped jeans, zany ideas and all — most of my relationships improved exponentially. More importantly? I felt utterly free. Free to just be me.

If you are dreading seeing certain relatives this holiday season, ask yourself this: Are you an adult? Do you have the right to be who you are, or are you going to let the expectations of others define you? Set boundaries, and stick with them. Let go of the need to please everyone and just be yourself. In the process of dropping your self-imposed behavioral restrictions, you might find that you are better able to relax and see the bigger picture, to laugh at yourself and your relatives.This, in turn, might help them to put down their own porcupine needles (because, more often than not, if you are feeling judged by them, they are also feeling judged by you). When you all drop your defensive postures and just DO YOU, you might even find that you like each other. And if not? At least you haven’t compromised your integrity for a bunch of [insert derogatory label of your choice here].

Be warned. All the trials and tribulations of personal growth are only exaggerated when dealing with other people. So if You Doing You feels impossible, or more trouble than it’s worth, there is an alternate “Y” that never fails.

Remove yourself to a separate space, bury your face in a pillow and just YELL!!!!

Happy Holidays.