Practicing mindfulness can be the key to slowing down and savoring the season.
Media contact: Anna Jones
The holiday season is filled with activities — shopping for gifts, family gatherings, holiday parties, etc. — it can be easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of it all. With meals to prepare, presents to buy and busy calendars to navigate, this time of year may turn into a stressful time of trying to balance what matters most while also checking off a lengthy to-do list. So, how can one slow down and give themselves the breathing room they need to truly enjoy the holiday season?
Megan Hays, Ph.D., associate professor and clinical psychologist in the UAB Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, says practicing mindfulness can be the key to slowing down and savoring the season.
“Mindfulness is simply the act of doing an activity with your full attention and awareness,” Hays said. “It involves being in the moment, right here and right now, while accepting the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that come and go.”
Mindfulness has demonstrated benefits for overall health. Research suggests that mindfulness-based interventions can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve cognitive abilities, reduce rumination, improve emotional processing, reduce pain, and improve stress management, among other reported benefits.
Fortunately, the sights, sounds and smells of the holiday season make it a perfect time to start practicing mindfulness and being intentional about grounding oneself in the five senses.
“There are many ways to practice mindfulness during the holidays,” Hays said. “You might pay attention to the notes of cinnamon, clove and cranberry in your favorite holiday candle and really savor that experience. You could have a mindful moment in front of your tree by noticing all of the lights and the tiniest details on your ornaments, all while paying attention to the scent of fresh balsam that may rekindle memories of holidays past.”
Hays says holiday food also paves the way for people to practice mindfulness. She recommends practicing mindful eating, which not only enhances the sensory experience associated with eating one’s favorite dishes, but also has the added benefit of reducing calorie consumption over the holidays, since slower eating is associated with less eating.
“While you are savoring the taste of your favorite holiday dishes at the dinner table, I also recommend practicing mindful listening over the holidays by putting your phone away and having present conversations with your cherished loved ones,” Hays said.
Exercises to practice mindfulness
Here are some exercises Hays recommends to help practice mindfulness this holiday season:
- 5-4-3-2-1 Technique: This technique involves taking time to notice all five of your senses, so you can ground yourself in the present moment. Find five things you can see around you right now. Identify four sounds you are currently hearing. Notice three things you can touch. Take a deep breath and pay attention to two things you can smell. And find one thing you can taste. This technique can be incorporated into everyday tasks such as walking the dog or enjoying a cup of coffee in the morning.
- Mindful Eating: Try to find one meal or snack each day that you can practice eating mindfully. This could look like limiting your screen time while you eat by leaving your phone in the other room or turning off the TV. While eating, notice how everything tastes and smells, the temperature of your food, and the colors of the food on your plate.
- Mindful Movement: Experts recommend aiming for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day, but even small amounts of movement each day add up. Take a walk before or after your holiday dinner and incorporate mindfulness by focusing on the movements of your body, how these movements make you feel, your breathing and your surroundings. Notice any sensations, such as achy joints, without judgment.
- Doorknob Technique: While running around from place to place this holiday season, use the doorknob technique to incorporate mindfulness into your holiday to-do’s. Every time you encounter a doorknob or handle, place your hand on the handle and pause for three seconds before entering the room to inhale and exhale. Use these few seconds to shift your focus back to the present moment and resist the urge to focus on past or future events of the day.
- Find Your Feet: Simply notice the position of your feet on the floor, the balance of the weight, any sensations between your feet, etc. You can do this exercise seated or standing.
- Noting Thoughts and Feelings: Spend a minute or two observing your thoughts and feelings. Allow them to come and go as if they are clouds in the sky or leaves on a river. For example, you might acknowledge to yourself, “I am noticing anxiety,” without attempting to push away or “fix” that feeling. Simply focusing your awareness and labeling your thoughts and emotions without judgment can be a powerful mindfulness practice.
- Be Intentional During Autopilot Activities: We all have several things we do each day that have become so habitual that we barely notice them. Some examples might be brushing your teeth, driving to work or washing the dishes. Integrate mindfulness into these tasks by experiencing them as if it were for the first time. For example, consider taking a different route to work and taking in all of the surroundings. Or activate all five senses during your daily shower instead of mentally preparing your to-do list.
- Mindful Breathing: Simply breathe and pay attention to your breath without judgment. Notice how the breath feels as you inhale and exhale.
- Try Single-Tasking: Instead of trying to multitask, direct your full attention to whatever task you are working on. This may look like putting your phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode and turning off email notifications on your computer while working on a task.
- Mindful Wake-up: Resist the urge to reach for your phone the moment you awaken. Instead, greet the day mindfully by letting your attention scan your body quickly. Pay attention to how each part of your body feels without judgment. Inhale and exhale several times for one minute.
Misconceptions and challenges
One of the most common misconceptions Hays typically hears about mindfulness is that people do not have enough time to practice it.
“For most of us, the idea of setting aside 15-30 minutes a day to practice mindfulness sounds more like a burdensome chore than a helpful addition to our well-being,” Hays said. “The good news is that mindfulness is just a concept, and not a particular exercise, meditation or app. The beauty of mindfulness is that you can practice doing nearly any activity mindfully, which means you don’t have to set aside large chunks of time in your day to benefit from this practice.”
Hays recommends practicing mindfulness by “piggybacking” off of regular daily activities and incorporating mindful moments into the day.
Oftentimes, people may feel that they are “bad” at mindfulness, because their minds may wander during meditation or they may have difficulty paying attention. However, Hays wants to remind people that wandering thoughts and distractions are a guaranteed part of the process, and it is OK when one’s mind wanders while trying to practice mindfulness.
“When your thoughts wander, the key is to observe these distractions without judgment,” Hays said. “This means that thoughts like ‘I’m terrible at this mindfulness thing’ should be noted but allowed to continue on their merry way, much like a cloud passing through the sky.”
Practicing mindfulness is not always relaxing or easy, as it can be challenging to sit still and stay present with one’s breath.
“If mindfulness were easy, everyone would be doing it,” Hays said. “That is why it takes practice. If you are trying to meditate, it can be very challenging to sit still and be present with your thoughts. The good news is that mindfulness is all about paying attention to your experience without judgment, so you can cut yourself a break when your concentration inevitably wanders.”
Another misconception Hays wants to address is that many people think one has to be religious to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a secular practice and a tool for well-being, not a religion, and it can be practiced by anyone.
Lastly, Hays wants to remind everyone that mindfulness and meditation are related, but the terms are not exactly interchangeable. Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the present moment without judgment. On the other hand, meditation is just one way to practice the concept of mindfulness. The practice of meditation involves trying to focus your attention on something such as a breathing pattern over a period of time and gently bringing your attention back to the practice when the mind drifts away.