Almost everywhere I turn there are blogs, webinars, and special events dedicated to managing holiday stress. How did a joyous time like the holidays become so stressful? How did we go from the awe Laura Ingalls and her sister Mary experienced when they each received a tin cup, peppermint stick, and shiny penny one joyous Christmas morning to the mounting list of holiday shopping, decorating, travel, parties, baking, navigating family dynamics, and the wide variety of emotions that well up inside of us when we think about these plans. With enough emotional stress, this can mean not only loss of sleep but also a higher susceptibility to illness. Holiday yikes!
Whole Brain Living I’d like to approach this topic and how to achieve more balance from the perspective of whole brain living. Whole brain living is a fascinating concept Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist and stroke survivor, presents on how to "short-circuit emotional reactivity".
Most of us have been taught that the left brain is rational and that the right brain is emotional. It’s true that the left and right brain perform different functions, but both sides have emotional and thinking qualities, just in different ways.
Left Brain The left brain identifies as the “I” or ego. It perceives linearity across time, connects to emotional memory from the past, and projects fears of the future. Based on your past associations, when you hear that your “in-laws” are coming to visit, for some people this will trigger a feeling of fondness, but for others it can trigger terror (no offense to in-laws!).
Right Brain The right brain on the other hand has no ego center, lives in the present moment, is not worried about the past or the future, and is able to connect to something greater than ourselves. It can better manage topics that normally worry us like that Christmas light competition since it’s not concerned about past or future implications. According to Dr. Taylor, this means that if you can stay in the present moment, you can choose who and how you want to be in any moment.
90-Second Life Cycle of An Emotion Now let’s take a closer look at the mind-body connection. At any given time, your brain is thinking thoughts, feeling emotions, and having physiological responses to what you’re thinking and feeling. If you have a thought that stimulates a negative emotion, your body then releases stress hormones into the blood creating a physiological stress response. It takes a maximum of 90 seconds for the stress hormones to flush through the body. This means that if the emotion lasts longer than 90 seconds, and in humans it often does, you are continuing the same thought-feeling-stress response cycle repeatedly. If you can observe this process rather than engage in it over and over, you can stop the cycle. This is where yoga and mindfulness tools can come in!
Yoga Tools to Interrupt the Emotional Cycle If you’re reading this yoga post, many of you already have the tools and just need to take the time to pause long enough to use them considering your newfound knowledge. Which tools work best may vary depending on your current energy state.
If you’re feeling ramped up (rajasic), you will likely need a more energetic practice to meet you where you are and slowly bring you back down to balance (sattvic). A few breath-centric sun salutations that match your current physical capacity may be helpful. Begin and end each salute with hands at heart center to infuse your practice with self-compassion. Feel free to lengthen your exhale to let go of what no longer serves you.
When you’re feeling lethargic (tamasic), you will likely want to start with something slow and build momentum until you’re feeling more energized but even-keeled (sattvic). Ie, perhaps you’d benefit from some breath-centric reclining poses and eventually make your way up to sitting or standing poses. As you move and breathe, imagine a white light emanating from your heart, cleansing, clearing, and energizing your whole body to face the day. A few minutes of slow, mindful breathing or meditation would be an excellent add-on to the end of either practice.
If you still feel emotional overwhelm, remember that there are times when the most loving thing you can do for yourself is seek outside support. A yoga therapist such as myself can tailor a yoga practice to your emotional and physical needs. We can even work in conjunction with a talk therapist or other health care professional with your approval. If you'd like help finding a mental health professional in the Fredericksburg area, Mental Health America of Fredericksburg maintains an up-to-date list of providers accepting new patients.
No matter what time of year it is, know that you can create emotional healing and resilience over time using heart-centered yoga and mindfulness tools to draw on the resources within you. Compassionate help with the process of self-healing is always available along the way.
Many blessings and joy to you this holiday season.