3 Steps To A Stress Free Christmas

With Christmas once again almost upon us, I felt this might be a useful time to share my 3 steps for a stress free holiday.

The festive period is a great time to unwind, spend time with family and friends, overindulge and catch up on all the Christmas specials on television. Unfortunately, Christmas can also be a stressful time if you have to deal with overexcited kids, drunk uncles and broken Christmas tree lights. Follow these 3 steps and you’ll enjoy a much more relaxing, enjoyable and stress free holiday.

Start With A Healthy Perspective

Too often our expectations for how the holidays will turn out becomes unrealistic. The kids must love their presents; the Christmas turkey must be perfect; no-one should argue; she shouldn’t get drunk; the Christmas tree has to look perfect.

We want Christmas to be great and so we end up making ourselves anxious by placing unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others. We need to start by having a healthy perspective on the holidays. Some things won’t turn out the way you want them to – and that’s ok, it doesn’t have to be perfect. With 6 billion people living on a planet floating in an infinite universe how important is it really that you have a perfect Christmas?

Begin by thinking about the small pleasures you want to get out of Christmas and then recognise that anything else is a bonus. So perhaps your goal is to have a few days away from a hectic workplace, or spend a couple of hours with your children, or visit an elderly relative, or go for a drink with an old friend, or go for a winter walk with your family. By hoping these things happen, but not wanting or expecting them to happen, you are developing a healthier and more realistic perspective.

Practice Acceptance

So, it’s Christmas day and the dog has stolen the turkey…

Take a deep breath…

Acceptance means acknowledging a situation in a non-judgemental way, not seeing it as good or bad. Things happen over Christmas that we have no control over. For example, we can’t control other people’s behaviours, responses or emotions any more than we can influence the weather. If you have visitors coming on Christmas day some will be early, some late and if you are lucky some will turn up on time. Acceptance doesn’t mean liking, supporting or endorsing a situation but it does mean recognising that you can’t change what has happened. Spending time worrying about the future or ruminating on what’s happened will just mean you won’t enjoy the holidays. Learning to accept the ebb and flow of the holidays is the second step to feeling calmer.

A really useful technique to help you practice acceptance was develop by Dr Elisha Goldstein and is based on the acronym S.T.O.P:

S – Stop what you are doing

T – Take a breath. Breathe naturally and focus on your breathing for a moment.

O – Observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Name any emotions you recognise but don’t try to stop them, just allow them to be. Then take your attention to your body and become aware of any sensations and how you are holding yourself.

P – Proceed with something that will support you in that moment for example talk to someone or take a walk.

Develop An Attitude Of Gratitude

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca summed up the value of gratitude best when he wrote:

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”

Unfortunately, as we got caught up in the Christmas spirit, especially in our modern age of consumerism, it is easy to lose track of all the things in our life for which we are grateful. No amount of expensive presents can be as fulfilling or rewarding as the support of a loved one, or a great friendship. Developing a better attitude of gratitude is proven to:

  • Improve physical health
  • Improve psychological health
  • Enhance empathy
  • Reduce aggression
  • Improve sleep
  • Improve self esteem
  • Increase mental strength

So this Christmas why not try this simple technique to help you feel happier and reduce and minimise any stress. A study of the effectiveness of this technique showed that 6 months later participants were on average 9% happier.

  • Get a notebook
  • Every night for one week before you go to bed make a note of 3 good things that have happened to you that day. It can be as simple as a delicious lunch or a catch up with friend
  • Think about why  – make a note of why it happened and why it made you feel good
  • Look back at your journal a week later. How does it make you feel? Are there any themes?
  • Try again for a second week. Get into the habit of including it in your bedtime routine


Mindfulness: the 2500 year old technique helping people today

Hardly a day goes by without a report in the newspaper about the success of mindfulness to improve people’s lives. Research into mindfulness has shown its use can improve:

But what is mindfulness and how can you incorporate into your life?

What is Mindfulness?

The practice of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are key components of Buddhist teachings which were developed 2500 years ago. At the heart of Buddhism are the four noble truths:

  1. Life has inevitable suffering
  2. The cause of our suffering are our attachments
  3. There is an end to our suffering
  4. The end to suffering is contained in the eight fold path

You can think of attachments as being our “must, should and have too’s”. Attachments are our cravings and desires, the expectations we place upon ourselves and on others.

The eight fold path consists of guidelines for how to live a life without suffering. Right mindfulness is the seventh path and it involves learning to be more present and aware of the moment rather than focusing on our thoughts. Mindfulness can therefore be practised formally as a meditation, perhaps sat down undisturbed for 5 –10 minutes, or informally while going about our daily business.

By being mindful we can focus our attention on what we are doing at that moment. Perhaps while washing up, or driving to work we tend to allow our thoughts to wander and find ourselves worrying or ruminating on a situation. This in turn can lead us to feel negative emotions such as anger, anxiety or irritability. By learning to be mindful we can focus our mind on the task in hand. The key to mindfulness is to learn to accept when our mind does start to wander and to then gently take our attention back to what we are doing.

Mindfulness has been practised by millions of Buddhists for hundreds of years, mainly in the east, to improve their general well being. Then during the second half of the 19th century interest in Buddhism in the West began to grow. By the 1960’s, at the time of the rise of the counter culture movement, Buddhism became more popular in America and Europe.

At the same time Cognitive and Behavioural Therapies (CBT) were being developed based upon the idea that if you change the way you think or behave you can change the way that you feel. One of the originators of this new form of therapy was Albert Ellis who was influenced by the work of the Greek philosopher Socrates and the Stoics. The Roman Emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, gave the following advice:

“Every hour focus your mind attentively…on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts. You will achieve this, if you perform each action as if it were your last…’ 

So, just as the Buddhist used mindfulness, the Stoics advised focusing on the present rather than getting caught up in unhelpful thoughts.

Then in the late 1970’s Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine, developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The programme incorporated mindfulness meditation, yoga and body awareness to help patients to reduce pain, stress and anxiety. Kabat-Zinn has described mindfulness as “moment to moment non-judgemental awareness”.

Since then the interest in mindfulness has increased greatly and has become ever more mainstream. Indeed the NHS now offer mindfulness courses to help patients with depression.

Mindfulness & Hypnosis

So, when working with clients, particularly for stress, anxiety, phobias and panic attacks I incorporate mindfulness techniques into client treatments. This inevitably leads clients to ask “are hypnosis and mindfulness/meditation the same thing?” In his book Mindfulness & Hypnosis: The Power of Suggestion to Transform Experience Michael Yapko claims that although not identical, hypnosis and mindfulness share “a common practical foundation, common methodology and common therapeutic orientation”.

Hypnosis is a state of focused attention and during hypnotherapy sessions I very often encourage clients to focus on a particular idea, image or suggestion. In a way, I’m teaching clients to focus on just one thing and not to become fused with their thoughts. I also teach clients to “let go” during sessions and also to become more aware of changes in bodily sensations such as warmth or heaviness. I also teach clients to “accept” their thoughts and to learn to not judge them. In addition I teach clients self-hypnosis techniques so that they can practice their new found skill whenever they need to settle and calm their minds.

Learning to be more mindful

The great thing about mindfulness is that it is portable, you can do it anywhere and it’s free. By starting to incorporate the practice into your daily life you can start to feel more centred and balanced throughout your life in general. Below is a really simple technique that you can use at any time.

Mindful Breathing

This is great to use through the day. I recommend you try to link it with something you do regularly during the day such as each time you wash your hands.

  • Take your attention to your breathing for 8-10 breaths
  • Observe each breath and become aware of any sensations eg the air coming in through your nose, the feeling of your abdomen rising and falling etc
  • If you find your mind wanders just accept any thought that pops into your head and then gently take your attention back to your breathing
  • At the end of the exercise expand your attention away from your breath and back into the room

Tackling Workplace Stress: A Worthwhile Investment

November 4th is National Stress Awareness Day (NSAD), coordinated annually by the International Stress Management Association (ISMA).

Having run NSAD since 1998, the theme this year is Employee Wellbeing as a Worthwhile Investment in Your Business and events are running up and down the country to promote the benefits of reducing workplace stress.

Hardly a day goes by without a news report, survey or piece of research that shows that stress is having a serious impact on the wellbeing of many people, not only in this country but across the world.

For businesses there are measureable impacts to all this workplace stress. Research in this country shows:

  • The total number of cases of stress in the UK in 2011/12 was 428,000, or 40% of all work-related illnesses
  • The cost of stress related absence to business is £3.7 billion

So the aim of this year’s NSAD, to show businesses that there are genuine benefits to having a healthy & happy workforce, should be taken seriously. The Health and Safety Executive have outlined a number of benefits to tackling workplace stress including:

Management benefits

  • Reduced staff turnover and intention to leave, so improving retention
  • Better absence management
  • Fewer days lost to sickness and absenteeism
  • Fewer accidents
  • Improved work quality
  • Improved organisational image and reputation

Benefits for individuals

  • People feel more motivated and committed to their work
  • Morale is high
  • People work harder and perform better – increasing their earning power
  • People feel that they are part of a team and the decision-making process, so accept change better
  • Relationships – with managers and within teams – are better
  • People are happy in their work and don’t want to leave

Economic benefits

  • Lower risks of litigation – because they comply with legal duties
  • Improved return on investment in training and development
  • Improved customer care and relationships with clients and suppliers
  • Reduced costs of sick pay, sickness cover, overtime and recruitment
  • Better staff understanding and tolerance of others experiencing problems


Getting it right in your workplace

So, if you are an employer or manager, or perhaps you are part of a workforce and want to help tackle stress in your workplace and improve wellbeing, how do you go about it?

I would strongly recommend that you start by taking a look at the ISMA Charter. This document clearly outlines how to develop a positive working culture in any organisation, regardless of size. It includes a range of behaviours and attitudes that all members of a team can work towards, developing a culture of trust, respect, openness and fairness.

Secondly, I would read and implement How to tackle work-related stress by the HSE. This documents uses a management standards approach to help employers manage the causes of work-related stress. Again, it requires a whole organisation approach and a commitment from all to evaluate and understand the causes of stress in that company. The document then advises that a process of monitoring and review is implemented to make sure that standards are maintained.