We all know the holidays can be hectic — and even science backs this up. A 2020 study by the American Psychological Association found that a quarter of all Americans consider themselves “extremely stressed” during the holiday season. Triggering that stress? According to the study: things like not having enough time, money and the incessant pressure to give or receive gifts. Then, of course, there are family dynamics to consider, the potential for uncivil political discourse, travel meltdowns and the list goes on. This where where some mindfulness tips can help.

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Because it doesn’t have to be this way. Nika Gueci says while you may not be able to control what happens, you can control your reaction with a few purposeful practices that can lessen the worry sparked by what’s marketed as the most wonderful time of the year.

“We can do this by being mindful, by not losing sight of our values and what really matters about the season, by being realistic and flexible, by taking care of ourselves, and by practicing gratitude and compassion,” she said.

Gueci is the executive director of Arizona State University’s Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience. The center provides mindfulness expertise and resources, much of it free, year-round to the university and wider community. 

Gueci and her center colleague Zachary Reeves-Blurton spoke to ASU News about how to mindfully navigate the holidays and shared the details of a new mindfulness course launching this spring that can help build up these skills all year long.

Question: How can mindfulness help people have a more enjoyable holiday season?

Gueci: Mindfulness can dial down holiday stress by promoting awareness and presence, allowing you to savor joyful moments rather than rushing through them. It teaches you to respond, not react, to family dynamics or unexpected issues, providing emotional stability. Plus, mindfulness techniques can help you make more intentional choices about holiday spending, eating and commitments.

Q: Where should someone start if they’ve never dedicated time to mindfulness before, to keep from getting overwhelmed?

Gueci: To weave mindfulness into your daily life, begin with activities you already do, like eating or walking. Start small. During meals, focus solely on the food — its texture, flavor and aroma — rather than eating while watching TV or scrolling on your phone. For walking, be aware of each step, how your feet lift off, move through the air and make contact with the ground. The aim is to fully engage in the current moment, shutting out distractions or drifting thoughts. This anchors you, making daily activities not just routine, but a form of mental training. 

Reeves-Blurton: Apps can help mindfulness novices get started, or provide structure to those who know what to do but just never find the time. A five-minute daily meditation focusing on your breath can initiate the mindfulness journey. Use an app like Insight Timer, Headspace or Calm for guided sessions. They have free content, simple navigation and brief guided meditations for several purposes, such as sleep or anxiety, allowing you to practice without getting overwhelmed by the underlying science or philosophy. 

Q: How can people incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives so they’re not “cramming” during stressful times? 

Reeves-Blurton: To fully harness the benefits of mindfulness, consistency is as crucial as it is in physical activity. Much like a muscle, your “mindfulness muscle” grows stronger with regular activity — making practices like stress relief increasingly effective and reflexive over time. Initially, the calming effects are felt, but with continued commitment, they’ll start to permeate your entire day. To build this habit, it’s helpful to schedule mindfulness exercises into your daily routine. Partnering up with someone or joining a group can further reinforce the practice until it becomes second nature.

Gueci: For ASU students and employees interested in learning more, you can take a new course we’re starting this spring called Foundations of Mindfulness and Resilience: Science and Practice. This transformative seven-week class promises a comprehensive exploration into the realm of mindfulness. It’s not just about learning the theories or understanding the scientific framework behind mindfulness; it’s a blend of theoretical knowledge and practical skills. 

Assignments are designed to stimulate self-reflection, encouraging students to critically assess their own experiences and growth in mindfulness and resilience. In essence, this course aims to cultivate a habit of mindfulness that deeply ingrains the practice into the daily lives of participants. And, it aligns perfectly with broader societal calls for enhanced mental health support, making it more than just an educational experience — it’s a life-changing initiative.

Q: What are some other accessible mindfulness practices?

Reeves-Blurton: The simplest, most accessible mindfulness practice is simply to pay attention to our breath. Without going too deeply into the science of it, the biofeedback of our breath and how we breathe has a great deal to do with how we feel. When we are upset or anxious, we tend to breathe shallowly or quickly, which triggers the physiological stress response within our bodies. When we allow ourselves to breathe deeply, slowly and regularly, our brain interprets the ease of our breath with safety or ease, which leads to emotional, mental and physical relaxation. When we notice we need calmness, we can do simple breathing exercises like box breathingdiaphragmatic breathing or just counting our breaths

Q: Do you have a favorite practice? If so, what is it and why?

Gueci: My favorite mindfulness practice is the guided body scan meditation, many of which can be found and downloaded from Insight Timer and other apps. I like the body scan because it guides you to focus your attention within the body itself — sensations we feel along our skin, feelings of ease or dis-ease, and notice any areas we are holding physical tension. I try to spend between 10 and 15 minutes on a body scan every morning, but we can do them any time — when we are waking up and becoming alert for the day, as we are winding down for sleep or when we feel our minds racing and simply need to re-ground ourselves in the present moment or let go of emotions, anxiety or stress.

Reeves-Blurton: As brief mindfulness breaks throughout my day — maybe when I realize I’ve been sitting at my desk too long or catch myself dwelling on a thought or simply need to hit the “refresh” button on my brain — I do what is called a five-senses meditation. I live on the edge of a forest, so I love to walk out onto my patio to do this, but we can do it anywhere. Just sitting or standing there, I breathe deeply and methodically work through my senses. I first notice what I can see — focusing on objects, but also shapes, light, color and patterns. Next, I tune into what I can hear, noticing specific sounds or even the quiet space between sounds. Then I turn to what I can feel on my skin: the feeling of the ground under my feet, the temperature of the air or sun on my face and body, the breeze. Finally, I bring my attention to what I can smell or taste: the scents in the air, the cup of coffee in my hand. I stand or sit doing this for as long as I need until I feel refreshed. Maybe a few minutes, maybe longer, my eyes open or closed, all the while breathing deeply but gently.