Over the years, Kirsten Johansson has learned to equip herself with some useful mindfulness strategies to survive the inevitable ups and downs of the holiday season.
A few years ago, while browsing in a clothing store she came across a nice dress that happened to be on sale. “As soon as I saw it I thought, great! This dress will be perfect for a party this holiday season,” Kirsten said. She got the dress but sadly, that holiday season there were no invitations. No parties.
“I was really crushed. I had a postcard notion of a holiday season including festive activities, and togetherness. But that year, the holidays came and went and it was quite lacklustre.”
Kirsten put the dress to the back of her closet and for a while, whenever she came across it, feelings of sadness and loneliness bubbled up to the surface.
“Unfortunately, I think we tend to approach the holiday season with so many expectations. Whether that be going to parties, making special connections, making a beautiful meal, or exchanging gifts.”
These expectations, Kirsten says, can factor into the stress that goes into the holidays. “We can quickly start to compare ourselves. Perhaps imagining that all our friends are having Disney-inspired holidays, while our own experience is going sideways. The build up of expectations and the comparison with others can trigger anxiety, grief and a sense of inadequacy. ”
How we can navigate the emotional ups and downs that come with the holidays, regardless of our circumstances?
When caught in an emotional storm, Kirsten is drawn to a body-based mindfulness approach to self-compassion, inspired by Kristen Neff’s work. She suggests the following simple approach:
1. Catch The Pain
If feelings of grief, sadness, loneliness or anxiety arise, take notice, and try to witness it from a place of kind observation without judgement.
“Name it,” Kirsten suggests, “Say: here’s grief, here’s sadness. Then check-in to notice the body sensations: for example, the heart beating faster, a pit in your stomach, your clenched jaw, or shallow breathing.”
Once we’ve noticed the pain, we can start to cultivate a relationship of compassion for ourselves.
2. A Gesture of Kindness
Kirsten says a helpful tool is to make a physical gesture of kindness. “Practise building a new response that shows your physical body that comfort and kindness is available right now. My go-to is bringing my hands to my heart, taking a breath and really feeling the warmth and softness of my hands.”
Kirsten combines the gesture of holding her hands to her heart with a simple mental message: “May I be kind to myself in this moment.”
“My favourite time to do this is standing in a warm shower. However, you can also do it wherever you are. You might be in the middle of a family dinner, or standing in a long lineup in the shopping mall. Nobody will know.”
3. Reminder: You are not alone
“I also like to remind myself that every single person on the planet has had a feeling like this before, including all of our ancestors who have gone before us. What I love about that reminder, is that it brings in connection. Suddenly it’s not just me alone with these uncomfortable feelings. There’s a sense of common humanity and togetherness.”
Kirsten says that once we meet feelings of sadness, anxiety, grief and anger with kindness, we can start to notice a shift. There might be a little more space for breath, muscles softening and warmth in our bodies. With practise, we can develop a more reliable orientation of internal support for our emotional storms.
4. The Practice
Encountering our vulnerability is not easy. But the sooner we can get on our own side, the better.
“This simple practice has been extremely healing and soothing in my life during painful experiences. And I think the more I practise embodied self-compassion, the more available I am to extend genuine hospitality to others.”
Over the holiday season, each of us will have opportunities to reach out and offer connection to ourselves and others in small and yet meaningful ways. To be sure, stress, anxiety, anger or sadness may show up, if even momentarily. Whatever the case, may we be kind to ourselves and to others in that moment.
“Make sheltering branches of your arms,
deep-shaded canopy in your belly,
a sun-filled meadow of your heart.
The wren of Grace alights
wherever she is offered loving hospitality.”
– Hiro Boga
Kirsten Johansson MA, RTC practises Relational Somatic Therapy and Expressive Arts Therapy to help address depression, anxiety, trauma, grief and loss. In addition to her therapy practice, she teaches Body-Mind Integration in the Bodywork Therapy Program at the Vancouver School of Healing Arts. Kirsten is a graduate from both the Bodywork Therapy Program and the Expressive Arts Therapy Program at the Vancouver School of Healing Arts.
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