3 Tips for Surviving the Holidays

The holidays are upon us! Social media, TV commercials, and Hallmark movies depict it as “the most wonderful time of the year.” While that may be true for many, for others it is a time filled with anxiety, loneliness, and bad memories. Regardless of if you are filled with holiday cheer or can’t wait for January 2, here are some tips that will make the holidays go a little smoother.

Watch your drinking.

Between the holiday parties and cold nights hunkered down at home, people tend to increase their alcohol consumption during the holidays. Not only does drinking (especially excessively) exacerbate depression and anxiety, it also makes it more likely you may embarrass yourself at the company party, get in a fight with Aunt Jean about politics at the dinner table, or skip that morning run that helps you feel energized and ready to tackle the day.

Keep up your healthy habits.

Let’s face it: between the constant supply of cookies at the office, cold weather, and hectic social schedule, healthy habits tend to fall by the wayside during the holidays. The best way to keep your mood stable is to practice moderation and continue with a healthy exercise, diet, and sleep regimen. Haven’t made these things a priority in 2018? No need to put off making a change until January 1 – now is the perfect time to create new healthy habits.

Say no.

When we overextend ourselves and don’t take the time we need to recharge, those holiday parties end up feeling like a chore. You know yourself – if two parties in a weekend is too much, choose the one that is more important to attend and send your regrets to the other. Or decide you are going to go to each for a set amount of time, say 1 hour.

In addition to social and work obligations, family get-togethers can be extremely stressful. If you find that you are emotionally depleted after a trip home for a few days, limiting your time with your family may be what is best for you. It is better to spend a few hours together and have it be pleasant than stay for several days and end up in an argument or leave feeling depressed.

If adhering to the above suggestions sounds difficult, or you feel too overwhelmed to make those changes on your own, it may be time to enlist help. Just like you don’t need to wait until January 1 to make lifestyle changes, you also do not need to wait until then to start psychotherapy. If you are in the Austin area, please reach out to me at laura@drlaurawahlstrom.com or 512-521-1531 to discuss your situation.

The Power of Breath

Not long ago I was watching the Today Show, and the topic was how to live a longer and healthier life. One of the segments was focused on deep breathing and how researchers believe may play a key role in slowing the aging process. Deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing (more on that shortly), is one of my go-to skills I teach my clients. Why? It is highly effective, and can be used anywhere, at any time. And, now I may be able to add to that list it helps you live longer!

Our typical breathing tends to be shallow and happens in our chest. When we experience anxiety or stress, our breathing tends to become even more shallow and rapid, and can set off a downward spiral of physical symptoms, thoughts, and behaviors. Hyperventilation (i.e., an imbalance of our oxygen and carbon dioxide levels) may set in, which leads to feeling dizzy or lightheaded, which leads to thoughts that something is wrong with you, which leads to more rapid breathing, which leads to…

You get the idea, right?

One of the keys to stopping this cycle is to change your breathing. This is where diaphragmatic breathing (also known as deep breathing and belly breathing) comes into play. Instead of taking rapid, shallow breaths from your chest, you take slow, deep breaths from your belly. This encourages full oxygen exchange, slows your heartbeat, and lowers blood pressure. All of those scary physical symptoms that are signaling to you “something is wrong with me!” have been thwarted.

What if you don’t struggle with anxiety – can diaphragmatic breathing help you? Absolutely! For those who deal with day-to-day stress, have difficulties, winding down, difficulties sleeping, trouble “shutting your brain off” at the end of the day, diaphragmatic breathing can help you relax.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Instructions:

To start, find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. Place one hand on your belly, and begin taking a slow, deep breath in. You should feel your chest expand, and your belly rise. Then, slowly expel the air from your chest. Continue breathing this way, counting as you breathe in and out. Each person is unique, so the number of seconds for the in and out breaths do vary some. I usually start with “In… 2… 3… out… 2…. 3” with my clients and adjust from there. You do not want to breathe so deeply that you are feeling dizzy or lightheaded – that is specifically what we are trying to counteract! If you find that happens, breathe more shallow or take shorter in and out breaths.

It is most helpful, especially at the beginning, to have someone else (therapist, friend, spouse) count for you while you breathe. There is also a great app you can download called Breathe2Relax that will give instructions and guide you through diaphragmatic breathing exercises.

There are 2 things I think are crucial for diaphragmatic breathing to be effective:

Expectancies – Simply put, if you believe in the rationale and science behind diaphragmatic breathing, it is more likely to be effective. If you believe it is simplistic or silly, it probably won’t help you.

Practice – How likely do you think it is you would make the Olympic track and field team if you had only run one time in the last year? Just like athletes need to train to improve their physical fitness and skills, diaphragmatic breathing needs to be practiced to be effective. A good place to start is daily practice of 5-10 minutes,during a time you are not in the throws of anxiety or significant stress.

I’ve included some helpful links on diaphragmatic breathing below. If you are interested is learning more about anxiety management and relaxation, and live in the Austin area, please reach out to me at 512-521-1531 or laura@drlaurawahlstrom.com.

Mayo Clinic: Decrease Stress by Using Your Breath

Psychology Today: Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and Your Vagus Nerve