Originally Published in County Line Magazine Oct 28th, 2017
There’s help for those who feel overwhelmed by the holidays — both before they arrive and after they pass. County Line Magazine turns to Scott Martin with the East Texas Stress Reduction Clinic in Tyler for guidance.
Why do the holidays — a favorite time for many — cause internal conflicts and anxieties for others?
The holidays are filled with emotional triggers of anxiety from memories of both perfect and imperfect childhoods and expectations. It’s a happy equation if your expectation of life minus your reality of life equals your level of happiness. The expectations of the holidays are what tend to ramp up people’s anxieties: appropriate gifts to buy; budgets to maintain, or blow; events that include rubbing elbows again with people we might not spend personal time with the rest of the year for good reason.
Are there quick psychological fixes for these problems?
When people feel overwhelmed, it is a good strategy to take a breath and get specific at identifying what is being held in such a way that it is causing you stress. There are situations you can either change or not change. If you can change them, then do you choose to do so? The next question, then, is how to accept those things you cannot choose to change, right? A very important reminder here is that the “pain” of mental emotional health is “in the body.” We do not have painful thoughts or emotions, we have thoughts and emotions that then send a biological signal into the autonomic nervous system of the body. How you yourself are holding an issue frequently has positive outcomes for the issue itself. At the very least, you can decrease your own suffering even if you can’t change the situation.
How do you define “mindfulness?”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), defined mindfulness as paying attention on purpose without judgment and with loving compassion for your self. I define mindfulness as the practice of “presence,” remembering to give yourself a break. If you want to change anything, you have to bring presence to it. The brain is going to do what it expects to do. If that expectation is staying in a story of frustration, then that is what it will do. If it expects to focus on how the body is holding the story, then you will see an increase of communication between the brain and the body, bringing more control over how that body is holding that stress.
What is it about being “present in the moment” that is so freeing and helpful for people?
Think of a gear system. If you are lost in a story where the reality you are in and the reality you want to be in are different, then you are suffering. Paying attention to something like breath or body sensation brings you out of the story and into the present moment. That decreases an enormous amount of mental and physical energy. For people who practice presence in some established ways, we see studies showing a decrease of 30 to 40 percent in medical and psychological symptoms across the board because stress is such a contributor to our health.
What general advice would you give people related to the holidays?
I would say spend a bit of time in mindful inquiry with “how you are going to hold” this holiday within you, recognizing what triggers from past mental or emotional traumas need some attention, and processing and making a clear commitment to practice presence daily so that you have more of an ability to respond to stressors instead of react. And remember to give yourself some compassion — be nice to yourself.
We also know that the two biggest predictors of happiness are gratitude and social connection. Take a 30-day gratitude challenge and write down several things every day in a journal for which you are grateful — no matter how small or large. Also, spending time and having social connection with others is also a great predictor of happiness. So make plans to go to that Christmas party, seek out opportunities to just hang out with family and friends.
Scott Martin is the founder and current director of the East Texas Stress Reduction Clinic in Tyler. He holds a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from the University of Texas at Tyler and is trained and recognized to teach the internationally acclaimed “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” program. Learn more at etsrc.org.