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Being mindful of holiday stress and joy

Last Modified: November 21, 2018

Healthy Mind

Enjoy this monthly mindfulness post from Dave Johnson, PhD, CNS- BC, LMFT, Employee Assistance Specialist.

Life is so startling
that there is not time
for anything else.

   — Emily Dickinson

My wife Rosie tells the story of our youngest son Justin accidently letting go of a helium balloon he had gotten during a summer festival. He lost his grip on the thin ribbon attached to the balloon, and was quite upset as it drifted upward toward the clouds. In an effort to console him, Rosie told him that the children in heaven would be delighted with his gift. He seemed to understand this message on a deep level. The explanation, not only soothed his emotional pain in that moment but encouraged him to replicate the gesture every chance he got. All summer, he would delight in watching balloons soar well beyond the tree tops.

Summer passed and fall appeared, with all the colors of the rainbow. Justin was diagnosed and treated for terminal liver cancer. He spent a lot of time in a beautiful red wagon, when he was too weak to walk. Since his death was near Christmas, it made sense to have a bunch of balloons tied to the red wagon at the front of church, plus hundreds intermixed with the poinsettias, Christmas trees and festive decorations at his Christmas Eve funeral mass.

Later in the day, at the cemetery, friends and family gathered around his small casket and cheered as they released balloons. The sky was crystal clear blue, the air crisp and wispy, and although the huge oak trees of the cemetery had lost their leaves and looked baron, the colorful balloons danced through their limbs and made their way toward the heavens. Our family below stared for a long time as one by one, we lost sight of each balloon as they disappeared into infinity. Children and adults cheered, squealed and cried, remembering the delight of the beautiful Christmas boy, Justin. Although many years have passed, when I close my eyes I can still see and hear vividly the memory in all its grand colors and tones. 

I ponder lessons of holiday stress and joy through the lens of mindfulness and story:

  1. Be intentional.  Choose to prime the pump of the holiday season with a pause to what one really desires to celebrate. Commitments are many, with traditions and rules of what one should do. Mindfulness invites us to be a bit more intentional to what we say “yes” to and when we should say “no”. Sometimes, having perspective is looking up, stepping back, and noticing a bigger picture is unfolding.
  2. Notice spark and twinkle.  The glitter and music of the holiday season can easily move us to tears and joy. Pausing to recognize and savor moments moves us from single bites of time to a way of immersing ourselves in a meaningful holiday experience. Taking ourselves off the fast pace of rushing to actually notice the spark of joy inside and between those we love anchors the spirit.
  3. Breathe softly.  In mindfulness, we often teach folks to become aware of breathing. We can choose to slow and be conscious of moving air through the nose and exhaling softly through pursed lips as if blowing through a straw. Choose to feel the smoothness of the air or notice the scent of the season with each breath.

    Life events sometimes have a way of taking our breath away, whether in the awe of beauty or with physical, emotional or spiritual pain. Sometimes simply choosing to notice the rhythm of the breathing pattern is enough to jolt one out of autopilot living and help them to be a bit more present. Being present to the moment sounds cliché, but coming into awareness of all types of strong emotions helps one to be a bit less reactive. Tenderness is a quality one should strive for, especially during the holidays.
  4. Tell stories.  Ask family and dear friends to share a favorite memory from years gone by. Especially lean into the whispers of the elderly legacy and the animated voice of young children. Hold your favorite beverage near you and inhale the aroma. Stay curious and be the fly on the wall observer as you notice and cultivate presence with those who have gathered round. Sometimes emotions will stream as folks tell their stories. Listen to the lessons that often pass from one generation to the next. Story is a sacred vessel to protect, honor, and invite it to be shared.
  5. Let go of stress.  This is an easy concept to understand, but not necessarily easy to do.  Whether stress is about grief, relationship, health, job, or the multitude of juggling, uncertainty and mystery is part of the process. Trusting that all will be well is a challenge.  The dance of life happens and the arc of change is often good. Letting go of unrealistic expectations of self or others is a good place to begin. Letting go is a practice of being gentle, quiet and noticing the letting go of resistance. Sometimes acceptance is needed but that doesn’t mean to sit back and do nothing. It may require an intention and clarity to know when to let go and when to act. What Is Important Now is an important question to ask oneself. Sometimes our stressors are gnats that are inconvenient but don’t deserve the emotional attention sometimes we give.
  6. Dance with joy.  Whimsy and play is often considered child’s folly, but the holidays can provide the season to be a bit more childlike. Explore new games, music and family friendly activities. A brisk walk with beauty, gazing up at the stars, or perhaps simply letting a colorful balloon be released to the heavens will spark joy this holiday season. 
Other resources – Sign up for free monthly word-based mindful healing exercises from Dr. Dave Johnson and Kathy Curtis, healing artist.

For a free 1:1 in person or phone consultation with Dr. Dave or to find out about more on Mindfulness & Stress Management programs, contact the Parkview Center for Healthy Living at (260) 672-6500. Dr. Dave also provides on-site guidance for teambuilding and transformational leadership, among other topics. To learn more about Employee Assistance Programs for your company, call Business Development at (260) 373-9013. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) practice has been extensively researched and proven helpful for coping with stress and change, grief, healthy eating patterns, pain, anxiety, depression and many other chronic disease and autoimmune disorders. 


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