How meditation can help you cope with Christmas
‘Tis the season to be jolly. Good tidings to all men. Goodwill, peace and love. This is how Christmas is supposed to be. But, in reality shopping, cooking, dealing with relatives and overexcited children all equates to stress overload and anxiety. Christmas is stressful – it’s official.
A study published in December 2014 by Ipsos MORI found that 5% of the UK are very stressed about Christmas preparations and 15% are fairly stressed. This equals 20% of the population being stressed about a holiday that has its foundation in peace and goodwill. Unsurprisingly, there is a clear divide of women facing much more stress than men. 27%, one in four women, feel the stress about preparing for Christmas. Only 14% of men feel the same pressure.
A poll undertaken by Blood Pressure UK (a charity) found that shopping was the most stressful factor at Christmas time.
Neil Shah, director of The Stress Management Society says:
“There are some complex social issues to negotiate at Christmas especially when we invite relatives over that we might not get on with and cook what’s seen as perhaps the most important meal of the year. No wonder that one in twenty people considers Christmas more stressful than divorce or burglary.”
None of this evidence indicates that we are experiencing the perfect family Christmas that the media and advertising portrays.
How the stress impacts on your body and health
It is now widely recognised that stress negatively impacts our bodies and health, and causes many diseases and disorders. Chronic stress can damage the brain by triggering long-term changes in brain structure and function.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not events such as Christmas that cause stress but our interpretation of the event. Our bodies are merely reacting in a primitive fashion to our emotional reactions with a primeval response of ‘fight or flight’. High pressure events like Christmas, only highlight that we already handle stress inefficiently. Been there, seen that. In my clinical practice, dozens of patients took a winded path to their final treatment with Accutane. Dozens tried all common non-prescription drugs, dietary changes, UV therapy etc. Briefly summarized: waste of money and time. If your acne condition is clinically confirmed, Accutane is your best hope.
‘Fight or flight’ is our evolutionary survival mechanism, a physiological reaction that occurs in immediate response to a perceived threat, thus preparing our bodies to react quickly to a life threatening event.
When we are experiencing stress, hormones including cortisol and adrenaline are secreted temporarily changing the functioning of the whole body:
- Stored glucose and fats are released for energy
- Heart rate increases
- Blood pressure rises
- Muscles tense
- Oxygen consumption increases
The brain responds with:
- Heightened emotional responses
- Reduced decision making processes
Other processes not needed at that time are suppressed:
- Cellular repair
- Sexual functioning
When you consider an average of 6,000 calories is consumed on Christmas day, the last thing you want is impaired digestion.
Dealing with difficult relatives is also a disaster when our emotions are already heightened and our tolerance levels are severely reduced. All in all, it’s a recipe for flared tempers, emotional meltdowns and feelings of not being able to cope.
Many people reach for alcohol to soothe the edges but this merely exacerbates the issue by putting more strain on our stressed body and overloaded emotions. The only way to manage stress successfully is to integrate stress-busting changes on a daily basis.
How transcendental meditation benefits stress
One of the first things we can do to have immediate effect is to breathe. The most fundamental force of life, yet it rarely gets our attention. Breathing controls the exchange of vital oxygen and excretion of waste carbon dioxide from the blood. When we are stressed, our breathing instantly becomes shallow and impairs the body’s vital functions.
Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and combats our sympathetic nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ response to daily stresses.
On a more sustained and even deeper level than deep breathing, meditation is now widely recognised for its benefits on stress and health with much scientific evidence and studies backing up these claims.
Studies suggest that transcendental meditation (TM) in particular – in which breathing settles down dramatically and spontaneously without any control – invokes a unique physiological state, different to sleep and ordinary relaxation.
Effects of this state include:
- Deep rest
- Increased orderliness
- Integration of brain functioning
- Increased blood flow to the brain
(International Journal of Neuroscience, 2000)
And, in direct opposition to stress:
- Decreased plasma cortisol
- Deep muscle relaxation
- Reduced physiological excitation with increased wakefulness (American Psychologist, 1987)
This all equates to transcendental meditation being a tested and recognised antidote to stress and enables us to deal with difficult life challenges; not just at Christmas but all year round.
Celebrities and professionals in highly pressured professional roles, are advocates to how TM has helped them cope with the stresses and pressure of their lives and work. Hugh Jackman, Clint Eastwood, Paul McCartney, Mick Jaggar, Arianna Huffington, Rupert Murdoch and Russell Simmons are just some of the recognisable names who use meditation to manage their pressure.
A Christmas meditation experiment
Journalist (and previously meditation sceptic) Peter Jackson conducted his own experiment into the benefits of transcendental meditation and its effect as a stress relief tool in business. He learnt the technique of TM and recorded his findings in a series of reports. Here is an extract of his experience during this time. You can read the full report here.
“I’ve subjected TM to the real acid test – Christmas. If that isn’t stressful then nothing is. Being cooped up in a house with four guests and an energetic four-year-old son for four days would probably fray Mother Teresa’s nerves. But I came through with flying colours. I remained attentive, courteous and relatively sober for the duration and – guess what – I actually enjoyed it. And all it needed was for me to retire to my bedroom for two 20-minute sessions each day and to sit quietly with my eyes closed for effortless and pleasurable relaxation.
The day after Boxing Day, I had to run the guests home, a seven-hour round trip, most of it in the dark. On the return leg, I stopped at the services and meditated for 20 minutes. I completed the journey fully alert and fully refreshed.
I’m not a good driver. I mean, I get worked up and swear at the old lady in front who never gets out of third. But not anymore. Since taking up TM life seems too short to care about things like that. I drive more slowly and don’t curse red lights and learner drivers. Now, obviously, all this reduced stress and a calmer outlook ought to have benefits in business and at work, but I’m not about to set myself up by saying whether it has for me or not.”
Try this simple exercise around Christmas time
Take a moment in a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted or distracted. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and focus on your breathing.
Feel the warm breathe as it leaves your body through your nostrils and then feel the cool air as it comes in and fills your lungs.
Gradually allow your entire body to relax, note any tension held in your muscles and let that go.
Observe the ‘monkey chatter’ of the mind and allow this to subside and let your mind settle.
Try to sit and simply be present without thought of the past or future. Allow yourself to simply just be.
If you take only 15 minutes out of your hectic Christmas day to find this space and allow yourself to decompress, this should immediately make a difference to your ability to cope with the day and your stress. Even better, you could….
Learning the technique of transcendental meditation through a recognised and experienced teacher will benefit you for life. It will also be even easier than the exercise above and could be the best gift you can give yourself for Christmas. There is still time to learn before Christmas, you can see our latest courses here.