& filed under Stress Reduction.


Love the holidays, but hate those family gatherings?

It’s that time of year again, but amidst your well-wishes and season’s greetings do you ever find yourself praying that a certain family member just won’t show up this year or dreading the hours of shopping you’ll have to do to make sure everyone gets the perfect gift?

It might sound harsh, but it’s true: At times, the holidays can feel like you’ve been given the gift of more stress with a bright red bow of dissatisfaction plopped on top.

Thankfully, just in time for the wrapping paper to start flying and the turkey to be passed, here’s some timely tips that will help you de-stress and enjoy this year’s holiday fun.

Unfortunately, most of us deal with stress everyday in our careers. But work stress is very different than “family-relationship” stress. For a lot of folks, old family patterns can overwhelm them all at once, and can quickly make them feel at their wit’s end.

A great way to prevent the stress-filled aspects of the season from souring family gatherings and friendly get-togethers is by paying close attention to your nonverbal responses (i.e. your body language, facial expressions, and breathing patterns).

Before any potentially stressful holiday event, take a few minutes, breathe deep and plan your responses to stress ahead of time. Most of us are very good at rehearsing what we want to say and do and not so good at preparing a new mental script for what we should say and do. By setting in motion a new pattern of behaviors, you can improve your stress level around the holidays this year and for years to come.

Read on for seven strategies to mix and match to have the perfect holiday season we all dream about:

No response can be the best response. When your egg nog-happy uncle starts asking you questions about your personal life or an annoying coworker won’t stop gossiping about people at work, the best response might be to politely extract yourself from the conversation. You might first try smiling and directing the conversation to another subject. If that doesn’t work, gently move on to a different area of the party. By avoiding the stresses of continuing these painful conversations, you can often help preserve these relationships and prevent a situation where you really feel like you have to be stern with the person.

Go to your happy place. When a stressor moment begins, think of the happiest memories you have. Some of my happiest memories are the births of my sons,. Each time I think of those, I smile automatically and begin to relax. Holding those happy thoughts changes your body language and your thoughts concerning the current situation. Yes, you really can ‘head-fake’ yourself out of a negative reaction.

Use the buddy system. Chances are you’re not the only one in your family who dislikes your “new” aunt or the only one of your friends who thinks a friend’s new boyfriend is rude and abrasive. So enlist your holiday comrades and work with each other to intervene when your ‘new’ aunt won’t stop chatting your head off or that bad boyfriend drops an insult you can’t forgive. Prepare ahead of time by arranging for the other person to drop a well-timed question into the conversation or by giving you a task to do that would remove you from the situation.

Use positive gestures of relationship to set the tone. Using an open, upward facing palm, gesture with your forearm and hand to the person most likely to start the negative situation. While you slowly gesture—remember, keep your palm up and open—comment on how ‘wonderful the decorations are this year. As you get to the word ‘wonderful’ be sure to have your fingers of the open palm gesture pointing directly at the likely offender. You have just nonverbally called them ‘wonderful.’ Continue the day assigning all the positive words you say, you’ll be amazed how it can reset the tone.

The opposite is true: “Aim” negativity away. No matter what you’re talking about (or whom you’re talking to!), never use gestures that exhibit negativity toward your fellow holiday guests. You can hurt feelings with your gestures and not even know it. For example, right after Thanksgiving a coaching client was telling me about how he hurt his aunt’s feelings. He was speaking about an event at work. ‘What a jerk!’ he said, while widely gesturing about the jerk. Before long, his auntie wasn’t listening. He said to me, ‘She looked like she had been insulted.’ She had—he had just called his aunt a jerk, nonverbally. Bottom line, be mindful of your gestures when talking about negative topics.

As your mother might say, watch your mouth. Many situations can be diffused (or inflamed) by intentionally using your voice. In addition to the words you choose, the emphasis, tone, volume, and speed at which you speak, play a crucial role in how someone listens, interprets and reacts to what you say. You can choose all the right words to say and still sabotage your message because it’s the emotional connection to the way you are saying what you’re saying that really resonates with people.  People will remember how you make them feel long after they remember what you said or thought you said. If you’re worried your tone might be negatively affecting those around you, it’s a good time to ‘go to your happy place’ as I advised earlier. Doing so will help improve your tone

Don’t let your face show what you’re feeling. Your facial expressions tell the world what you are thinking. Monitor your facial expressions. Avoid rolling your eyes, pouting, and frowning. By avoiding these negative facial reactions, you can also keep your own mood up. Research with Botox patients has shown that blocking a frown can change how you think and feel. Thankfully, there’s no Botox needed for a spirit-lifting exercise I recommend. Every time you succeed with a difficult person, find a private place and give yourself a big fist-pump with an out-loud “YES!” It will change your mood or  look up, throw your arms up to the sky and do a little victory dance. Feels great, right? That’s because your body movements are tied to your emotions and your emotions are tied to your movements.

Breathe easy. Train yourself to maintain low, abdominal (natural) breathing. The more you experience the calming effects that low, abdominal breathing has on your body, brain and voice, the easier it is to maintain this breathing in all situations—even during stress-filled holiday shopping trips or hectic family gatherings.

The goal is to maintain natural breathing even while others around you are not. Our breathing supports all our non-verbals, but most importantly, it supports our voice. When people pick up on our voice patterns, they are really reacting to our breathing. How you are breathing at the time determines how you will be perceived. When you and the listener are breathing low and comfortably you are in rapport. If either of you are breathing shallow or rapid, there has been a break in rapport, a distraction or threat. If you remind yourself to breathe comfortably, the situation will diffuse and you can get back to your holiday pleasantries.”

‘It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it,’ are definitely important words to live by around the holidays. People really do pay more attention to what your body says than what you actually say. If the holidays tend to send you into a tizzy, then it is a good idea to go into each holiday gathering with a plan. By using your nonverbals to de-stress and actually enjoy the holidays, you’ll find that you come away from this holiday season with a great feeling and even closer relationships with those you love.

About Sharon Sayler: She is a Communications Success Strategist and author of Mindfulness in Action: A Hands-on Guide to Create Peace Amidst The Chaos and What Your Body Says (and how to master the message). She shows people simple, powerful, easy to learn ways to communicate and enjoy relationships using mindfulness and nonverbal communication techniques. 


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