Twelve days to a stress-free Christmas

Twelve days to a stress-free Christmas

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Christmas can be the most stressful time of the year but it doesn't have to be this way. Dr Danny Penman and Professor Mark Williams, authors of Mindfulness, have produced a handy twelve-day guide to a 'low-stress' Christmas. Using techniques from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), Dr Danny Penman and Professor Mark Williams show you how to help break the cycle of anxiety, stress and exhaustion. Each week day we will post a new tip for you to try. If you follow this twelve-day mindfulness guide, this just might become one of the most relaxing times of the year.

Day 11: Visit the movies and see a Christmas blockbuster

Ask a friend or family member to go with you to the cinema, but this time, do it with a difference. Go at a set time (say 7 p.m.) and choose whatever film takes your fancy only when you get there. Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected −the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for this.

Most of us only go to the cinema when there's something specific we want to watch. If you turn up at a set time and then choose what to see, you may discover that the experience will be totally different. You might end up watching (and loving) a film you would never normally have considered. This act alone opens your eyes and enhances awareness and choice.

Before you go, notice any thoughts that may arise such as, 'I haven't got time for pleasure', or 'What if there is nothing on that I'll enjoy?' These thoughts undermine your enthusiasm for taking action and discourage your intention to do something that might nourish your life in important ways. Once you are inside the cinema, just forget about all this and be consumed by the film!


Day 10: Reclaim your life

Think back to a time in your life when things seemed less frantic. Before the time when some crisis or increase in workload took over your daily existence. It might even be more recent that that: before the run-up to Christmas say, or perhaps a relaxing break in the summer. Recall in as much detail as you can some of the activities that you used to do at that time. These may be things you did by yourself, for example reading your favourite magazines or taking time to listen to a track from a favourite piece of music, going out for a walk or bike ride. Alternatively, they may be activities you do with friends or family such as playing board games and going to the theatre.

Choose one of these activities and plan to do it today or over this weekend. It may take five minutes or five hours, it might be important or trivial, it might involve others or it could be by yourself. It is only important that it should be something that puts you back in touch with a part of your life that you had forgotten. A part of you that you may have been telling yourself was lost somehow, that you could not get back to. Don't wait until you feel like doing it. Do it anyway and see what happens. It's time to reclaim your life!


Day 9: Do the sounds and thoughts meditation

Sounds are as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation. The sound of Jingle Bells or Sinatra’s White Christmas might cheer you up – or send you into an emotional tailspin. Sensing the power of sound – and its relationship to thoughts and emotion – is central to Mindfulness and to becoming a happier, more relaxed and centred person.

Today, why not try our sounds and thoughts meditation? This elegantly reveals how the mind conjures up thoughts that can so easily lead us astray. Once you realise this – deep in your heart – then a great many of your stresses and troubles will simply evaporate before your eyes.

The Sounds and Thoughts meditation gradually reveals the similarities between sound and thought. Both appear as if from nowhere. Both can seem random and we have no control over their arising. Both are enormously potent and carry immense momentum. They trigger powerful emotions that can easily run away with us.

The Sounds and Thoughts meditation helps you to discover – at the deepest of levels – that you can relate to unsettling thoughts in the same way that you relate to sounds. Your thoughts can be likened to a radio that’s been left on in the background. You can listen – or rather observe – but you need not elaborate on what you receive or act on what you feel.

 You are not your thoughts.

 You can download or stream the Sounds and Thoughts Meditation from here:


Day 8: The Ten-Finger Gratitude

To come to a positive appreciation for the small things in your life, you can try the gratitude exercise. It simply means that once a day you should bring to mind ten things that you are grateful for, counting them on your fingers. It is important to get to ten things, even when it becomes increasingly harder after three or four! This is exactly what the exercise is for – intentionally bringing into awareness the tiny, previously unnoticed elements of the day.


Day 7: Set up a mindfulness bell

Pick a few ordinary activities from your daily life that you can turn into ‘mindfulness bells’, that is, reminders to stop and pay attention to things in great detail. There’s a list below of things you might like to turn into bells. You don’t have to turn them all into ‘mindfulness bells’ – they are just suggestions. Why not print out this page and stick it on your fridge as a gentle reminder?

 • Preparing food for Christmas: Food offers a host of opportunities to become more mindful. If you’re preparing food – particularly Christmas ones that are rich in flavours, smells and textures -  then try and pay full mindful attention to all that you are doing.

• Wrap the presents: Focus on the sound and feel of the scissors as they slice through the wrapping paper. How does the paper feel? Soft and slippery or stiff and sharp-edged? How do the presents look, feel and smell?

Listening to friends: At Christmas parties it’s easy to lapse into the same tired-old conversations, so why not turn a friend’s voice into a ‘bell’ that’s a signal to pay full attention to what they are saying? Notice when you are not listening – when you start to think of something else, what you are going to say in response, etc. Come back to actually listening.


Day 6: The Intensely Frustrating Queue Meditation

Christmas often seems like one big, long queue….. You have to queue to buy presents, to pay for the food in the supermarket, and all of the bars, pubs and restaurants are crammed with people waiting to order.

Next time you feel like screaming ‘why don’t they just get on with it!’ try carrying out our Intensely Frustrating Queue Meditation instead.

When you are in a queue, see if you can become aware of your reactions when something holds up your progress. Perhaps you joined the ‘wrong’ queue, and are obsessing about whether to make a dash for another one that seems shorter? At such times, it is helpful to ‘check in’ with what’s going on in your mind. Taking a moment to ask yourself:

- What is going through my mind?

- What sensations are there in my body?

- What emotional reactions and impulses am I aware of?

Mindfulness accepts that some experiences are unpleasant. Mindfulness will, however, help by allowing you to tease apart the two major flavors of suffering—primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the initial stressor, such as the frustration of being in a long queue. You can acknowledge that it is not pleasant; it’s OK not to like it. Secondary suffering is all of the emotional turbulence that follows in its wake, such as anger and frustration, as well as any ensuing thoughts and feelings that often arise in tandem. See if you can see these clearly as well. See if it’s possible to allow the frustration to be here without trying to make it go away.

You may still feel pulses of frustration and impatience while you are in the queue, but these feelings will be less likely to spiral out of control. You may even become, for yourself and for others around you, an oasis of stillness…


Day 5: Valuing the TV

At this time of the year, when the weather can be a bit grim, watching TV can end up becoming a particularly potent habit. It can consume vast amounts of time. It's all too easy to sit down, turn on the TV and watch it. And watch it … You may feel that there are more interesting things to do than watch the Christmas adverts, or hear Slade's 'Merry Christmas', but somehow you just can't bring yourself to do them.

Can you make the TV more valuable and respect it more than you do?

Today, get a TV schedule and see what programmes you would really like to watch: ones that are interesting and enjoyable. Only watch the programmes that you have actually chosen to watch and consciously switch off the TV for the times in between. You could read a book or newspaper, phone a friend or relative you haven't spoken to for awhile, or perhaps wrap some presents. You could even try one of the meditations on the Mindfulness website:

At the end of the evening, record in a notebook how it went: not only whether it felt good or bad, but what you noticed. What thoughts, feelings, body sensations and impulses were around?


Day 4: Do Something Pleasurable

At this time of year, exhaustion, stress and unhappiness can easily dominate our lives. It’s almost as if we are subconsciously reacting against the ‘enforced merriment’ of Christmas. You can start to experience ‘anhedonia’ – that is, you can’t find pleasure in life. The things you used to enjoy now leave you ‘cold’ – you feel as if a thick fog has put a barrier between you and simple pleasures, and few things seem rewarding any more.

Research suggests that much of this is because the ‘reward centres’ of the brain have become insensitive to the things that used to activate them. You can counteract this effect by taking baby-steps towards the things that you used to like doing but have since forgotten about. To begin the process of ‘waking-up’ these neglected parts of your brain, choose one or two of the following things to do (or perhaps come up with your own idea):

• Be kind to your body. Have a nice hot bath; have a nap for thirty minutes (or perhaps a little less); treat yourself to your favourite food without feeling guilty; have your favourite hot drink.

• Engage in an enjoyable activity. Visit or phone a friend (particularly if you’ve been out of contact for a while); get together what you need so you can do your favourite hobby; take some exercise; bake a cake; read something that gives you pleasure (not ‘serious’ reading); listen to some music that you have not listened to in a long while.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, why not share it with a friend and spread a little peace this Christmas?

 Mindfulness is out now. Click here for more information.


Day 3: Take a three-minute breathing space

One of the greatest ironies of mindful awareness is that it often seems to evaporate just when you need it the most. When you are becoming increasingly burned out, you tend to forget just how useful it can be for dealing with the feelings of being overwhelmed and the world's seemingly relentless demands. And then Christmas comes along and piles on even more pressure…

When you are becoming angry, exhausted, anxious or stressed, it's difficult to remember why you should remain calm. And at times, it can feel as if Christmas was created just to bait you.

The three-minute breathing space was designed to deal with such feelings. Its impact is twofold. Firstly, it's a meditation that's used to punctuate the day so that it dissolves negative thought patterns before they gain control over your life. Secondly, it's an emergency meditation that helps to 'ground' you when your thoughts threaten to spiral out of control.

When you are carrying out the meditation you may find that your mind repeatedly runs away with itself. This is entirely natural. It's what minds do. They leap around and offer up thoughts to your conscious self, much as a child holds up toys to an approving adult. When you find that your mind has wandered, gently escort it back to full awareness and continue following the instructions on the track as best you can.

You can listen to the meditation by clicking here.


Day 2: Go for a short walk

Walking is one of the finest exercises and a brilliant stress reliever and mood booster. A good walk can put the world in perspective and soothe your frayed nerves. It’s the ideal way of taking a break from all of those projects that need be completed by Christmas.

Today we suggest that you arrange to go for a 15-30 minute walk (or longer, if you wish). You don’t have to go anywhere special. A walk to the shops to do a bit of Christmas shopping, taken in an open frame of mind, can be just as interesting as a hike through the mountains.

There’s no need to feel that you have to rush anywhere; the aim is to walk as mindfully as you can, focusing your awareness on your feet as they land on the ground, and feeling the fluid movements of all the muscles and tendons in your feet and legs. You might even notice that your whole body moves as you walk, not just your legs.

Pay attention to all of the sights, sounds and smells. You might see the deep red colour of the berries on the holly bushes or the pearlescent white of mistletoe – or perhaps the inky greyness of slushy ice and snow. See if it is possible to be open to all your senses: smell the mustiness of the winter leaves; feel the rain on your head; the breeze on your face; watch how the patterns of light and shade shift unexpectedly. Every moment of every season has a host of sensory delights – regardless of where you live.


Day 1: Eat some chocolate (mindfully)

At this time of year it's all too easy to eat too much chocolate and scoff down too many mince pies. All that lovely rich food is packed with flavour and totally irresistible to begin with. After awhile you hardly notice the lovely flavours at all. And if you are in a rush, you tend to wolf down such treats by the handful.

When you eat without thinking you miss out on so many wonderful flavours, textures and aromas. A single bar of chocolate, for example, has over 300 different flavours. How many of them do you normally taste?

Reconnecting with your senses is the heart of mindfulness so why not try our chocolate meditation to help you begin to enjoy your food again? You could even use the first piece of chocolate from an advent calendar.

You can listen to our chocolate meditation below:

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If you have enjoyed listening to this post, why not share it with a friend and spread a little peace this Christmas?

 Mindfulness is out now. Click here for more information.

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