Many people struggle to feel 'merry and bright’ about Christmas - there’s always *so much* to plan and do, and its a very emotionally difficult time if you are lonely or missing loved ones - and I’ve noticed a LOT of people struggling with pre-Christmas stress this year. Perhaps it’s the hangover from years of truncated and cancelled christmases due to Covid (after all we haven’t been able to get together in the UK over the past two years) but the levels of stress and anxiety that people are describing has been striking.
I’m afraid I can’t make the stressors themselves disappear. However I can offer some simple (and free, and quick!) tips that might just help people navigate through the pre-Christmas storm.
In a nutshell: Breathe, move, ground.
Important note: Each of these things can be easily fitted in to every day life - they should not add to the burden of the ’to do list’.
It sounds simple, and frankly that’s because it is. Yet most of us completely underestimate this incredible tool that we have, free off charge, in-built within our own bodies.
When we're anxious our breath becomes shallow, and high up in the chest. However when we free the breath through breathing exercises, we can help cultivate a sense of calm, which in turn slows the breath down further.
There are many different breathing practices, but three very easy ones to begin with are:
The natural breath
This is a very simple breath practice which can be explored anywhere and at any time - driving, at work, during a conversation, before drifting off to sleep, etc.
How: If your environment allows you to close your eyes, close them. If not, keep them open. Breathe in and out slowly through the nose.
Minimise effort wherever possible - your breath should feel free of forcing, gasping, holding, etc. Notice the breath in the body - where it moves to, perhaps where the sensations of the breath are the most dominant, and where they are more subtle.
If the mind starts to wander elsewhere bring it back to the feeling of the breath entering and leaving the body. Accept that this wandering mind is a part of the practice, and know that just noticing your breath and slowing it down is enough.
How: Breathing in and out through the nose, focus on the sensation of breath passing over the back of the throat. Feel the gentle stroking of the breath here as you inhale and exhale, like a whisper. Create a slight constriction in the throat as if you were half-swallowing, or humming without producing the sound.
Ujayi breathing can be used to soothe, calm, and settle the mind. It can slightly increase body temperature so isn’t suitable for everyone all the time (pregnant women need to practice it carefully), but if you need to modify (or if you find it difficult to achieve, or just have a blocked nose) then simply concentrating on the sound / sensation of the breath moving over the back of the throat, like the slow movement of the tide on a beach, will suffice.
Whether working with ujayi or a modification, you are taking the time to notice your breath and be consciously involved in its process.
Brahmari breathing (‘bee breath’)
This technique uses sound and breath to calm the mind and nervous system. It counteracts stress and directs the mind inwards as typically the eyes and ears are closed during the practice. On a physiological level, Bhramari breath stimulates the vagus nerve – the longest cranial nerve, which travels from the brain stem to every vital organ within the body, except the adrenal glands and descending colon, earning its name ‘the wanderer’ (vagus means ‘wander’ in latin).
Brahmari is really simple and easy to remember, and a great practice to try with the kids!
How: In a comfortable position, begin to make a low humming (‘mmmmm’) or buzzing (‘zzzzzzzzz’) noise on the exhale. Either is fine – for some people the buzzing sound creates tension in the jaw, so watch out for this and use humming if that works better for you. If you are comfy to do so, close the eyes and gently cup the hands over the ears to intensify the experience.
Work with 4 or 5 breaths, then pause and notice how you feel. Repeat for 6 or 7 rounds and then return to natural nasal breathing.
If you want to practice this in a public space you could use it silently – imagine you are humming on the exhale, without making the sound. This will be similar to ujjayi, described above.
Being in nature is often less palatable at this time of year but (downpours permitting) but connecting to nature is one of the simplest ways to find perspective and feel calmer. Some people like to run, others like to walk, swim, or just sit…. but fundamentally the act of stepping away from screens, looking up at the sky, and noticing the environment around you with the clarity and appreciation that you would usually reserve for a holiday destination, can help to lift the spirits. How: Whether outside or indoors, physically feeling more connected to the ground beneath you is very steadying (pun intended). If you feel anxious or overwhelmed, steady your feet on the floor and take time to notice how that feels. If you’re sitting then simply allow yourself to sink into the chair, and feel supported by it. Simple stretches like Childs pose (or other restful positions where the head is low to the ground) are one step better.
3. Moving It’s well documented that moving is positive for the body and mind. Clearly I’m biased towards yoga, but as a practice it will help you to tune into your body, stretch out, release tension and soothe discomfort. Plenty of studies have proven that yoga can decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. It can improve your sleep, digestion, immune system—all of which are impacted by stress. It can relieve anxiety, sadness, and mood swings by restoring dopamine and serotonin in the brain. It helps your mind, body and nervous system get back into balance again. How: You don’t need to spend hours on the mat, or break out into a sweat. 5, 10, 15 minutes will help. Begin by stretching out your body, and notice how it feels. If you know your way around a yoga mat, add in a sun salutation or two. Cat and cow poses will get the spine moving and reinforce your commotion to the breath moving through your body. Lunges will help to release tension through the back and hips. If you’re a complete beginner, consider a class or course to give you some ideas and help you to build positive habits. Yoga will help you to notice how you feel as you move, keeping your attention as you do so and so distracting the mind. Putting it simply, the more you practice, the more prepared you’ll be to mange daily stress and cope with the Christmas situations as they arise.
And if all else fails…