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Pulling the Cord: Expert Advice For a Calmer, More Self-Aware Season



Sometime in mid-November, you jump out of a plane.

Then it’s one long, long free fall of celebrations, obligations and aggravations. Whether you’re screaming for joy or for dear life, it won’t stop until Jan. 1. And that’s on a typical year — much less at the tail end of election season.

What if you could pull the cord and open a parachute? What if you could float peacefully through the holiday season instead of plummeting?

It’s possible. We sought guidance from Camille Adams, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in treating trauma; Ellie Burke, a Martha Beck certified life coach and instructor of meditation and yoga; and Sara Lovelace, a private yoga instructor and writer. Here’s their advice on finding peace in a fraught holiday season.

Identify the specific activities that stress and relax you. Burke resists blanket prescriptions, like “do yoga.” Instead, she asks clients to explore this question: What things deplete you, and what helps replenish or refill you? When you cultivate inner awareness, you may realize that something you think is relaxing — such as browsing social media — is actually harming you.

Put self care first. Stress-relieving routines often are pushed aside by more urgent commitments, Burke says. Don’t let that happen: Block off time for your needed replenishment, whether that’s running or reading, listening to music or sitting by the river. On your calendar, label it “essential activities, or your essential time,” to remind yourself not to postpone it. When you take care of yourself first, Burke says, you’re better able to be present for the things that matter to you.

Shed unnecessary obligations. Burke guides her clients through intense examinations of what’s necessary in their lives — an exercise that can be especially useful at the holidays. Let’s say you’re organizing the company’s holiday party, and you really wish you weren’t. Ask yourself these questions: If it has to get done, can someone else do it for me? If that’s not possible, how can I make it better? You aren’t powerless, she reminds her clients.

Leave your phone on the kitchen counter. While waiting for a doctor’s appointment, Lovelace glanced around the waiting room and realized that of 15 people there, including children, “every single one of them was on their smartphones, except for me.” Not that long ago, Lovelace muses, the waiting room was a communal experience. People started conversations, smiled at each other, or complained about the wait. “It’s interesting, because everyone is in their own world,” she says. “They’re in their own bubble. They’re inaccessible.”

Recognizing its addictive nature, Lovelace takes it a step further, choosing not to own a smartphone. She encourages the rest of us to limit time spent with social media and instead practice socializing. “Can you go out into the world without a shield?” she asks. “The fact that it’s gotten riskier and riskier, and scarier and scarier, tells me that we all need to do it a lot more.”

Begin a meditation practice. Why not? “It’s a great time to have really low expectations,” Lovelace says, laughing. Guided meditation, in which you follow the instruction of a teacher, can be helpful, she says. Meditation apps and online resources are abundant.

Understand what’s happening in your brain. Stress and anger — “whether it’s our families that do that to us, or national events,” Adams says — activate the midbrain limbic system, which generates a fight-flight-freeze response. It’s possible to learn ways to switch from the limbic system to the frontal lobe, making it easier to regain some calm. Think deep breathing, meditating and connecting with supportive people.

Protect yourself. Finding peace right now isn’t so simple for people of color, LGBT people or immigrants, says Adams, who works with many clients from these populations: “Those marginalized communities are feeling very, very afraid.” There’s a vast difference between feeling political friction at the holiday dinner table and sensing active hostility when you return to your small Virginia hometown. Adams’ advice is to remain as present as possible, try not to panic and stay home for the holidays if you need to.

State what you’ll tolerate. Communicate your limits to your family, Adams says. It’s OK to tell them, “I really don’t want to talk about the election right now.” And if relatives persist? Say, “If we must discuss this, please understand this is difficult for me.” Ask them to identify the values that underlie their political beliefs, and maybe you’ll find some common ground.

Know that it’s OK to go. If common ground eludes you, that’s when you can say, “It’s hard to be together when we’re talking about this,” Adams suggests. Or, “I’m having a hard time being present with you.” If the other person ignores your requests, maybe you should leave, she says. “Make sure you’ve got Uber on your phone. Or Lyft. If it really gets toxic and mean, or mean-spirited, it’s time to go.”

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