Meditations for Managing Holiday Stress and SAD

Meditations for Managing Holiday Stress and SAD
December brings holidays in virtually every spiritual tradition, and even if you do not formally celebrate one of them, the frenzied pace, money worries, and family visits often trigger feelings of stress that cloud the spirit of joy and celebration which this season is supposed to represent. While we all hope to feel uplifted at this time, studies show that as many as 60% of people report feeling anxious and/or depressed at some point during the holiday season, with around 20% reporting they feel this 'often' leading up to and during the holidays.* Adding to this complexity, as many as 10% of people suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder** – a seasonal depression triggered by the diminishing daylight.

While serious or ongoing anxiety or depression may require consultation with a mental health professional, meditation can be a great help for less intense or short term episodes triggered by the holidays. What follows are some simple meditations that anyone can do on a daily basis to help manage their emotions.

Belly Breathing
Deep belly breathing is one of the most effective means of quickly cutting through feelings of stress and anxiety as they arise. Whenever we are feeling anxious, our body increases production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn trigger us to tense our muscles, resulting in shallow, chest-based breathing. When we instead focus on taking longer breaths, and on expanding our belly outward on our inhale followed by slightly contracting inward on our exhale, our diaphragm drops down and we naturally take in more air, reversing the stress cycle.

To engage belly breathing in meditation, simply place one hand on your belly just below your navel, and imagine you are breathing into your hand. Allow your belly to push your hand outward on your inhale, and gently drop on your exhale. If you like, mentally 'count' if this feels natural to you – say a 6 count inhale and 6 count exhale. If you work with a mantra or chant, feel free to add the mantra or chant to your exhale – a simple elongated ‘Om’ can add to the soothing effect. Don't force the pace of your breathing or constrict your body, simply focus on gently breathing into your hand. At some point, you may want to stop the belly breathing, and just sit quietly, or transition into one of the other meditation forms mentioned below.

Extended Exhale Breathing
Extended exhale breathing is really meant to be a follow-on to deep belly breathing. Once you feel you have slowed your breathing down a bit, attempt to make your exhale 2-3 counts longer than your inhale. For example, perhaps breathe in on a 4 count and then exhale on a 6 count. You may do this on every breath, or every other breath if every breath feels too constricting. Never allow yourself to get to the point where you feel out of breath – if this happens just let go and breathe naturally. As you exhale, imagine your entire body relaxing, and the stress leaving you in waves.

Walking Mindfulness
Some people find that sitting still or controlled breathing are out of the question when they are feeling stressed. They need to move! If this is the case for you, try a walking mindfulness meditation. In mindfulness meditation, the goal is to bring your attention back to an object of focus, or to your awareness itself, each time it wanders. When your mind is especially busy and your body is tense, focusing on physical sensations while moving is often one of the best methods for settling down. Walk slowly in circles or another pattern around a room in your home, or outside if this is feasible, and simply note the sensations on your feet and legs as you walk. Follow the movement of your foot from heel to toe with each step. Each time your mind wanders, return your attention to your feet and legs, and what it really feels like to walk.

In addition to slowing your mind down through the repetitive movement and focus, walking meditation has the added benefit of energetically grounding you. Our root, or first chakra (energy center), is linked to our sense of safety and security, and it is strengthened whenever we focus on our lower body, and our connection to the ground beneath us. At a certain point, you can add belly breathing or extended exhale breathing to your meditation if you wish.

Candle or Light Gazing
Gazing fire is one of the oldest known meditation forms, generating a soothing, quiet awareness. In addition, gazing a candle or other flame has the added benefit of connecting your awareness with a light source, one of the proven treatment forms for Seasonal Affect Disorder. While formal light therapy may be necessary for some people, setting aside time daily to connect with a candle or the sun itself (particularly at dawn) can really help.

If using a candle, simply set a lit candle at a distance and height in front of you where you can gently gaze it without lowering your head or straining your neck. Focus your attention at the center of the flame, and allow your gaze to soften, relaxing your eyes, and perhaps resulting in the image blurring a bit. Imagine that the gentle light you are connecting with is mirrored within your own chest, in your heart area.

If gazing the sun, of course you cannot look directly at it, unless you are gazing the sunrise or sunset (sunrise gazing can be particularly affective for SAD.) Instead gaze the sunlight as it shines on some surface – perhaps the leaves of trees, or a vase of flowers. Alternatively, you can gaze just under the sun, where the light is diffuse. Just as with candle gazing, allow your gaze to soften and imagine the light is mirrored within your own body.

Incorporating just a few minutes of any of these meditation forms into your day during this busy and emotional period may help relax and lift your spirits.

• 2006 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research study, as published by the American Psychological Association
** Friedman, Richard (December 18, 2007) Brought on by Darkness, Disorder Needs Light, New York Times

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