Although the idea of the holidays and "vacation time" can feel so exciting and relaxing, it often becomes the opposite experience, leaving you wondering if this is really a "holiday" or a "stress-oliday".
Why can the holidays be such a triggering time for many?
I'm sure you can relate to the obvious reasons...The stress of spending so much money (especially during this pandemic time), the busy-ness of added "to do" items on your list, figuring out how to keep your kids occupied while you have so much to do, kids being home and fighting more or wanting more of your attention, and extended family pressures too.
What I have discovered to be 3 big causes of explosions over the holidays though, are "stressors" that are not so obvious to most.
If you want to have a more peaceful and calm holiday, then it's important to bring these "hidden stressors" out into the open and do something about them before they trigger you.
The 3 big hidden stressors that we don't always realize have an effect on us are:
During our daily lives most of us have schedules and routines. We thrive on them, but why is this?
This is because we all have a nervous system that feels safest when we have Context. This is about knowing the Who, What, Where, When, and How of our daily lives.
Our nervous system likes to know what we are doing, when we are doing it, who we are doing it with, where it's going to happen and how it's going to play out. This is why schedules are so crucial to keeping our nervous system feeling safer as we know what's happening and there are no surprises. There is a sense of control and this brings a feeling of safety.
When it comes to not reaching the state of explosion, a feeling of safety at the nervous system level is imperative. Without a schedule, which provides a feeling of safety to our nervous system, we can feel like there is no container holding us together.
This is the conundrum we sit in when the holidays or a vacation come forth. Schedules and routines go out the window and there is this notion that holidays brings a feeling of freedom and relaxation, but the opposite ends up happening - especially for our kids.
While not having to work on a holiday can definitely help our stress levels, not having any plan of what to do, or even planning quiet times of doing nothing, can leave our nervous systems feeling lost and confused and unsafe, which just primes us to be on the edge leaning towards exploding more easily.
The key to setting up a holiday where you can feel both the relaxation and freedom of not having an intense schedule, while also giving your nervous system cues of safety, is to have some sort of schedule, including sticking with certain daily rituals you already know and love.
For kids, keeping bedtime routines and rituals, and mealtime routines and rituals, the same is key. Also, creating a daily schedule for the family, including yourself in there, helps everyone know what they are doing when, how, with whom, and where.
Since the nervous system also like to have Choice, it's important to co-create this schedule with your kids, and make sure you feel some choice in this schedule too so that you don't start to feel like you're over-giving and not considering yourself.
One of the things that go out the window during the holidays (which is a time of giving and doing things for everyone else) is that any practice of self-care or downtime can go out the window.
Parts of you may want to make sure the holiday events are perfect, we spend enough time with the kids making them happy, we cook amazing meals and baked goods, and do enough activities. The kids go to bed later and later, and by the time they are in bed you are so exhausted that you either fall asleep or you binge-watch Netflix and don't get enough sleep.
During the holidays and vacation, it is important to balance the "busy-ness" and "over-giving" with self-care. Why? Because being overly busy creates a stress response in our nervous system, and this uses up a lot of energy. Just like a car cannot run with an empty tank, neither can you...Or you can for only so long and then you're really depleted and ready to crash. This is why so many people can end up getting sick over the holidays, which just creates more stress.
The hidden stressor here is not noticing when your tank is reaching empty. You keep using up borrowed energy by continuing to "have-to" and "I should" yourself into doing more and before you know it you are empty - feeling tired, exhausted and super resentful at having to "do it all". This is a perfect recipe for exploding.
The key is to notice when you are over-doing or over-giving, and take breaks, allowing yourself time for mini-sessions of self-care to fill your tank back up and give your nervous system cues of safety. This can look like breaks in your day of becoming really present while enjoying a cup of tea, writing about your emotions in a journal before bed, doing a breathing practice like the breathing that Unyte’s iom2 device teaches you, or the 4-7-8 breathing technique of Dr. Andrew Weill throughout the day to reduce anxiety and the stress response in the body, or going for a walk in nature (even if it is with your kids).
Anything that helps you to tune into your body, come back to the present moment, and help your system to feel relaxed and safe again can help fill up that gas tank.
Creating a time in the schedule everyday that is "self-care" time for the family would be golden. Everyone chooses to do something during that time that soothes and calms their nervous system...Like coloring, reading, going for a walk, cuddling (anything that ideally does not require devices as all devices are hidden stressors for the nervous system).
The third big hidden stressor, that most of us don't even realize is the stress that eating too much sugar can cause to our nervous system.
When we eat sugar (even natural sugars or any carbohydrates that turn into sugar quickly), our bodies need to metabolize that sugar. If we have too much sugar in one sitting then when that sugar hits the bloodstream it signals to our body that we need to metabolize or get rid of excess sugar. If we can't get rid of that excess sugar fast enough, our blood sugar spikes and this becomes an "internal cue of danger" to our nervous system sending us into Fight/Flight (the Sympathetic state of the nervous system).
This is why, if we pay close attention to ourselves and our kids, that we can often become irritable or hyper after eating too much sugar, or we see our kids launch into problematic behaviors. Too much sugar in your bloodstream causes your nervous system to feel unsafe, and your body signals to your brain you are not safe, and unconsciously your kids will launch into "stress behaviors" to expend that excess energy.
To help avoid problematic stress behaviors, it is so important to monitor sugar intake and when you do allow it, give it with some good fats and proteins (like with a handful of nuts or after a protein-rich meal) as this slows down the insulin spike.
Other ways to offset the sugar intake during the holidays is to create many more opportunities for movement, including daily exercise, dancing, more rigorous play. Work these into your daily schedule as it will help with lessening the blood sugar stress cues and work off that sugar in a positive way instead of it turning into automatic problematic stress behaviors to expend the excess energy.
The last thing many of us want to do on a holiday is put forth a "conscious effort". You probably just want to take your head off and not think so much.
But what ends up happening is you and your kids end up in unconscious stress reactions which take up way more energy in your system than the "conscious effort" you could put in up front. Plus, you teeter on the edge of "explosion-ville" which just leaves you feeling pretty bad and exhausted.
Making the conscious choice and intention, everyday, to choose ways of being that feed safety and nurturing to yours and your family's nervous system is a new way of being for many. But the rewards are beyond worth it.
What is a more peaceful and relaxing holiday season worth to you? A lot, I bet.
Wishing you much peace and joy during this holiday season.