At this time of year, for those of us who are prone to sensitivity to intensity and lots of social expectations, anxiety can begin to escalate. Outlined below is my go-to practice for managing anxiety at any time, especially over the festive season. As I write this I happen to be delayed at Brisbane airport awaiting a flight to Sydney after facilitating a Trauma Sensitive Yoga Teacher Training today, and am actively using this practice as I wait for my flight time to be announced.
The escalation in anxiety around the end of the year can occur for so many reasons. A few of the common anxiety threads I hear in my counselling clinic include:
Seeing family, or being immersed in family dynamics
Eating and weight worries, related to pressures to lose weight/look 'good' for summer, combined with access to triggering foods and emotional eating around Christmas and parties
Money management over Christmas
Concern about what’s been achieved this year and what to hope/focus on for next year
These are but a few examples. Whatever the context of your particular end-of-year stressors, the following very simple practice can be utilised in just about any context to help soothe anxiety.
The simple practice has 3-parts and an acronym S.S.S that makes it easy to remember.
1. Soften Expectations: Let’s say you have challenges around body image, and in prepping for Christmas you notice you feel worried about receiving judging comments from family about your weight, what you’re eating, or how you’re looking (or insert your particular issue of concern here). As you notice this anxiety rising, you can begin right there with noticing your hope that this year your family will be different, and softening any expectation you may be placing on yourself to cope with the judgement differently, if unwelcome comments do happen. Yes, it would be a genuine relief if everyone in the family were suddenly free from judging comments about each other’s weight and food choices, and embraced a body-positive attitude. It also makes sense that you might wish you could let comments role off you without affecting or damaging your self-worth.
However, if there's been a precedent of such judgement each Christmas so far, and if those comments hurt you, then if the pattern does repeat, by ‘softening expectations’ you will have prepared yourself to experience a more compassionate response toward yourself and others in advance. This means that if disapproving comments do happen (or the women start talking about their weight loss efforts and body criticisms at the table as is a modern social phenomena), you’re more likely to soften enough to be able to respond rather than react, which allows you access to the next two steps of the SSS practice.
2. See what's working: Once your expectations are softened, you can then shift your focus to ‘See what’s working’. Tiny details are sufficient for this practice. We’re not trying to slather saccharine over a tough situation, but rather to connect with the capacity to take in what is already sweet and supportive in the midst of challenge. Hard as it can be in the midst of struggle, the practice is to look around and find little details that can remind you of what's alright. You might reconnect with the fact that you’re feeling energised in your body; that someone cracked a great joke an hour ago and the whole table laughed; the star jasmine is blooming outside the window; and the kids are chasing and splashing water bombs outside. It’s important to mention again that this diversification of attention is NOT designed to deny your real feelings of disappointment about the stigmatising attitudes in the family, however it does allow you to see both the difficulties and the beauty at the same time, which is a very important tool when anxiety wants to hijack your nervous system into believing that because one thing is problematic, everything is wrong. When you can embrace a dialectical perspective on disappointments, it also means that if you do choose to discuss your feelings of being judged with any family members, then you’re more likely to do so in a way that recognises what’s valuable as well as what you’d like to change. This encourages non-violent communication, which ultimately supports positive connection and growth.
3. Self Care: The third layer is then to focus on Self-care. Self-care gets paid a lot of lip service; but when it comes to anxiety support, it’s a really important practice and we need real tools to support us, not just trite ideas. While it can be easy to opt for numbing methods at this time of year to avoid the anxiety by pouring another wine, or reaching for the Christmas cake (these are GREAT if they’re for pleasure but less supportive if they’re used to tame anxiety), it is also possible to practice reaching for other nurturing methods of self-support, which is where yoga can be particularly helpful. Since the body, mind and breath (three of the primary tools of yoga) travel with us everywhere we go, yoga can be practiced anywhere and you don’t need to practice physical ‘postures’ to gain the benefits in soothing anxiety. A simple ‘noticing breath’ where you tune in to the body breathing itself, with no effort from you, can be a valuable tool to work with anxiety. You might also take a walking meditation around the garden or the block, with a focus on listening to sounds each time the mind wanders, or dive into the ocean to replenish circulation (horizons also help provide perspective when interpersonal anxiety emerges). And of course you can experiment with your own intuitive methods of self-care.
These three practices put together enable us to explore supportive ways to navigate anxiety, with gentleness towards ourselves and those with whom we might share the season of all things silly.
Having shared this particular practice, in the end it’s so important to break rules, colour outside the lines and experiment with what works for you to soothe your experiences of anxiety.
If you're interested in learning how yoga can support anxiety relief, my next 8-week Yoga for Anxiety and Depression course is coming up soon. Learn more here.