For Happier Holidays, Set Your Expectations – and Breathe

5 min read

Dec. 4, 2023 – The holiday season is upon us, and with it, a flurry of activities and obligations. There are gifts to buy, parties to attend, cookies to bake, latkes to fry, and families to entertain. The stress can be relentless, and expectations can be off the charts.

Amid the hustle, a new study finds the added pressures of inflation, tight finances, and world affairs have many Americans feeling even more strained and overwhelmed than usual this holiday season. More than half of people surveyed also remain concerned about the rise in COVID-19 and flu cases, both of which can become unwelcome guests at social gatherings.

Nicole Hollingshead, PhD, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, said the survey’s findings truly reinforce the need to step back. “We know from research, especially looking at cognitive behavioral therapies, that what you do can really influence how you feel,” she said.

Stop Living 'From the Neck Up'

“Doing” starts by being connected with ourselves, explains Sonia Jhas, a Toronto-based mindset expert and author of I’ll Start Again Tomorrow (And Other Lies I’ve Told Myself). “Many of us live from the neck up in the vortex of noise and self-inflicted narratives,” she said. “We fail to ask ourselves: ‘What are my values?’ And ‘What are my evaluation criteria for the holiday seasons?’”

Jhas recommends that before the holidays start in earnest, people create “a mindset manifesto,“ as a way to set expectations for the holidays.

“Step back and ask what you want for yourself for the holiday season,” she said. “Do I want ease? Do I want comfort? Do I want support? All of these can erase the self-limiting beliefs we carry about ourselves. The key is to have clarity ahead of time before we’re in the fire so we have a better chance of making those bumps feel minor versus massive derailments.”

This practice of setting expectations (or setting intentions) is one of the most important strategies that Inger Burnett-Zeigler PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate clinical professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, recommends – not only for the holidays, but for daily living.

“This is where you start taking care of yourself and are able to examine where lines need to be drawn," she said. “It can apply to what limits you set if you are financially constrained so you don’t feel stressed about spending. Or what you are willing to do; for example, committing to doing only one part of the cooking and having others take care of the rest.”

Figure out what you feel able and willing to give, she said, including asking others to pitch in and help in ways that honor the boundaries you’ve set.

Just Breathe

The idea of mindfulness simply means taking a beat, a moment to connect with one’s body, a strategy that can be especially helpful in stressful situations.

“Energy without oxygen equals anxiety,” says Kim Buchanan, a sound healer and wellness expert based in Roxboro, NC. “We’re never taught how to breathe properly, and if you look back on times where you’ve been anxious, you probably realize that you weren’t breathing.”

Breathing “properly” in times of stress can mean calm, deliberate breaths from the belly, inhaling slowly for 6 seconds through the nose and then exhaling for 6 seconds through the nose with your mouth closed. The process, Buchanan said, “sends a message to our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down.” 

Breathing relies on the rule of threes: awareness, intention, and attention. Buchanan said she steps back each morning when she wakes up, focuses on her breathing, and sets her intentions for what she would like to see happen in a positive way.

“You’ve got this awareness that something is going to happen, like the anxiety and baggage that we carry about being around family,” she explained. “You pay attention to what the triggers are. And then you work to define your intention so you can change the way that you approach the situation when it does occur.”

Buchanan said that it can also mean the difference between getting into a political argument with someone, or “leading with heart,“ or thinking of a peaceful approach to deal with the drama or a difficult person, or shifting your focus to something that you are grateful for, like a beautiful flower arrangement in the room. 

“I refer to this as rooting oneself in the present moment,” said Elena Sonnino, a life coach and speaker based in Baltimore. “A lot of people act a bit differently around this time of year; they’re pulled in a bazillion directions and taken out of alignment from what’s important to them,” she said.

“That’s why I encourage folks to have some sort of daily practice that keeps them in their bodies (vs. their heads). Whether it's breathing or lying in bed cuddling with a pet, these mini-moments are intentional, focused pauses on how they want to feel, say at the end of a party, or the end of a family gathering.”

But Sonnino also pointed to another important consideration. “Two things can be true at the same time,” she said. “I can be joyful about one aspect of the holiday and completely stressed out about the things in the world. By naming it, by giving myself a permission slip, I don’t have to go so far down the rabbit hole.”

Take Small Actions

For people who are not partnered or have extended families, don’t have children, or live too far from their families, the holidays can be a lonely time. This is a stressor that Burnett-Zeigler said is all too common but less often talked about.

“This is where mindfulness comes into play,” she said, “where people can redirect themselves out of the comparison zone and social media zone back to the present moment, and be intentional about engaging with people or activities that bring them joy” (such as reaching out to a friend or creating holiday scenery in their homes). 

Finally, there is no “one-size-fits-all formula for cracking the code on the holidays,” Jhas said. “Break it down into little pieces, connect to your mind and body, and remind yourself that you are showing up for you,” she said. “You only need a few little pieces to create a different anchor.”