Enjoying the Season by Focusing on the Present

As the holiday season approaches, many of us begin to feel stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted. In the face of shopping lists to work through, travel itineraries to plan, and seemingly endless school functions to attend, we often lose sight of the potential for joy, celebration and re-connection with loved ones that this season is supposed to bring. Thus, the holiday season is an especially good time of year to practice “living in the moment”. Although this advice often sounds trite and worn out, in fact it is based on very sound psychological principles that can help reduce stress, boost your mood and improve your outlook on life.

First, consider the alternatives to “living in the moment”. One alternative is to focus on the past. While there can be some value in reflecting on the past and taking stock (how else would we make New Year’s resolutions?!), too much dwelling on the past can foster feelings of regret and sadness that can in turn promote depression. If you find yourself constantly thinking thoughts that begin with “if only I had…” or “I wish that I could have…” it may be time to try focusing on the present. A second alternative to living in the moment is focusing on the future. Again, there is some value in anticipating what challenges may be ahead of us and planning accordingly. However, a singular focus on the future tends to promote feelings of anxiety and distress, and can lead to feeling overwhelmed and helpless. If you are often playing various possible scenarios over and over (“what if this happens…” “what if that happens….”), consider working more on focusing on the moment that you are in.

This holiday season, try to actively savor something that you might otherwise hurry through. Take a break from your “to do” list and focus on what your senses are telling you about where you are and what is going on around you. Be an objective observer of your environment, and stop to notice what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel. If you are baking treats for a child’s school function, take a few minutes to luxuriate in that smell of fresh-baked holiday goodies. If you are wrapping a gift for your work gift-swap, take time to notice the way that the wrapping paper sparkles and how the ribbons curl just so. Appreciate the warmth of your sweater, the sparkling lights on your neighbor’s porch, and the sweet smell of pine as you pass the display of wreathes outside of the grocery store. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed with tasks, stop, close your eyes, and breathe. Focus on the fact of your breathing, being sure to breathe deeply into the bottom part of your lungs, engaging your diaphragm. Counting as you breathe will help you to breathe more deeply, and also help you to focus on what you are doing as opposed to what you have to do.

In short, the best way to get more enjoyment out of your holiday season is to focus a bit more on the present moment – and perhaps a bit less on the present(s) on your list.

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.