Four Evidence-Based Strategies for Managing Holiday Stress

During the busy holiday season, we tend to get swept away by both the cheer and the stress. Luckily, contemporary science offers approaches for keeping your balance this time of year—and any time.

Set your alarm clock just 13 minutes early each morning—and meditate. A recent study published in Behavioral Brain Research found that just 13 minutes of meditation practice each day shifts mood and cognition in positive ways. Researchers enlisted 42 subjects, who were randomized into two groups. One group did a 13-minute guided meditation daily for eight weeks, and the other group listened to calming music for 13 minutes each day. Both groups were measured before the start of the program, at the four-week point, and again after the program had ended. Results showed that the meditation group experienced better overall mood states, with greater improvement in subscales of anger/hostility and confusion/bewilderment. In addition, the meditation group showed increases in focus and attention, and decreases in levels of the stress hormone cortisol (this also decreased for the music group). Though it did take the full eight weeks for participants to experience these benefits (halfway through, the changes were not statistically significant), it was one of the first studies to show that even smaller amounts of meditation practice can make a difference in mood and attention. Researchers suggest doing mindfulness meditation earlier in the day, as practicing before bed seemed to disrupt sleep quality.

Try five days of mindfulness. If committing to even a 13-minute meditation practice seems like a lot during the holiday season, try doing it for just five days. One study found that five days of meditation training, for 20 minutes each day, improved mood and attention in a group of college students. Participants who did a relaxation training did not show these outcomes, suggesting that there is something specific to the practice of meditation and mindfulness that helps us access these benefits. Researchers hypothesize that it is the invitation to observe experiences, rather than immediately react to them, that support these outcomes. Given that holiday season is a prime time for reactivity (family, shopping, long lines, traffic), doing a short meditation practice for just five days may help relieve stress off the cushion.

Breathe your way to relaxation. Research shows that slow, yogic breathing can reduce blood pressure and increase feelings of calm. And while you can’t shift into an eyes-closed meditation just anywhere, the breath is a perfect “on the go” technique: You can slow down your breathing while driving, sitting in a meeting, or waiting in line. Researchers find that a rate of six to eight breaths per minute, with a focus on the exhale, is ideal for activating the body’s relaxation response. (If at any time you feel lightheaded, go back to breathing normally and begin again when you are ready.)

Practice self-compassion. Good intentions don’t always get us there. If that 13-minute meditation just doesn’t happen one morning, cut yourself a break, remind yourself that you are doing your best, and begin again tomorrow. Studies show that a hard-line approach to behavior change is much less successful than a self-compassionate approach. For example, people who get off track when dieting are much more likely to get back on the wagon when they offer themselves forgiveness and compassion rather than judgment and criticism. If it helps, you could try the mantra I am doing my best and I will simply try again tomorrow. (Kripalu Schools faculty Michelle Dalbec shares a few simple, powerful ways to practice self-compassion in this video.)

A little bit of practice can make a big difference. Taking a few moments to pause, breathe, and notice brings a sense of calm and stillness amid the swirl and movement of the holidays.

Angela Wilson coteaches The Science of Yoga at Kripalu.

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Angela Wilson, LMHC, RYT 500, is a Kripalu faculty member who has conducted research and written about the intersection between yoga, Western psychology, and science.

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