One of Dr. Colleen Fairbanks’ greatest holiday gifts was, in the midst of traffic during the seasonal rush, stopping at a red light—and mentally slowing down. “I used the moment to take deep breaths and check in on myself,” she says. Colleen, of Lombard, Illinois, has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology or, as she says, “helping people lead a healthier and happier life.” And despite—or maybe because of—the tumult of activities and expectations this time of year, the holidays can be a challenging time for that.
“Holidays can be an extremely stressful time for people, because there’s an expectation that you have to be happy and have to enjoy every bit of it,” she says. “It’s just not realistic. Our lives are already pretty busy. The holidays just compound that.”
She’s been there, personally, with a busy professional schedule as well as an active family with church, school, and social obligations. It’s why she follows the advice she gives to others.
For starters, she says, take care of yourself with exercise and good nutrition—not just for the holidays but on an ongoing basis. A healthy lifestyle creates a solid resiliency foundation and it helps you bounce back faster when stress occurs, she says. Then, “when you add in changing your thoughts and behavior on top of that, you’re opened up to a whole new way of living.”
When you do make changes to your routine, she says, choose the things that matter most. “Time is of the essence in the holiday season, so use your values to guide and give direction. You can’t be at every single holiday party, caroling event, church activity, and school activity. I look at my calendar and pick one thing a weekend that we will do, and I find that it gives us a good balance of being engaged in fun holiday activities but also lets us still get through the necessary things of a typical daily life.”
Also, she says, make a must-do list, not a to-do list.
“Focus on what needs to be done today, and rethink the to-do list. A to-do list can be a million miles long and can very easily lead to feeling overwhelmed,” says Colleen. Steal away moments to restore calm. Things like reading a book, writing a letter, listening to music, or taking a walk can help, but so can something even simpler.
Practice some moments of silence throughout the day to calm your body and your brain. People say they don’t have time for it, but I promise they do. It’s all about using your time differently. Just fit it in with what you’re already doing, like when washing the dishes or wrapping presents or stopped at a red light. That’s a good time for a couple deep cleansing breaths, and tuning in on how you are doing. Just really try to clear your mind of the internal chatter.
“I can’t do everything, but for the things I do, I can be more present, relaxed, and focused … and that makes for the happiest of moments,” says Colleen.
How do you set yourself up for a happy, healthy life?
Here are suggestions from Dr. Colleen Fairbanks, a clinical psychologist.
Sleep: Get your recommended seven to nine hours. We all set alarms to get up. Set an alarm to go to bed. Allow yourself time to power down and clear your mind, and realize it’s truly an important thing to do. Without quality sleep, it’s harder to handle stress and manage your emotions.
Silence: Slow down that train of thought. A lot of times, stress isn’t in the present. It’s in all those internal dialogues, thinking about the past or worrying about what might happen in the future. Practice just being in the moment and enjoying it.
Eat & Drink:
Dark Chocolate: The antioxidants in cacao beans may stimulate relaxation hormones such as serotonin and help keep us in a better mood. Be sure to choose dark chocolate with 70 percent cacao or higher to reap the health benefits.
Strawberries: Packed with fiber and vitamin C, strawberries may also help reduce the impact of cortisol, a stress-producing hormone in our bodies, and help us bounce back quicker from stress.
Rooibos Tea: Also known as red bush tea, rooibos tea is a naturally caffeine-free herbal tea that has been associated with many health benefits and contains antioxidants and flavonoids that may help reduce levels of stress hormones.
Olive Oil: A great source of healthy fats, olive oil contains essential fatty acids that help make mood-boosting hormones.
Red Pepper: The vitamin C in red bell peppers helps your immune system by acting as an antioxidant that busts cells that may get you sick.
Oats: Hearty whole grain oats are more than good for our hearts. They also help boost hormones that actually make you relax. Now that’s calming!