Dr. Nicola McCaffrey

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Have Yourself a Mindful Merry Christmas

With the festive season just around the corner I can practically smell the pepperkake baking in the ovens and hear the pop of the champagne as it is opened in celebration of the holiday season. For many of us the festive season brings out the worst when it comes to our over indulgent habits. It is hard enough to manage our eating, drinking and shopping habits throughout the earlier months in the year, without the constant round of work parties, free flowing alcohol and cinnamon permeating the air. The truth is that the majority of us eat, drink and are merry over the holidays. We consume more than we normally would, we are inebriated more than we normally are, and we certainly spend more than we normally do! The hardest part is the regret and guilt that we feel when New Year rolls in and we step on those scales, the bank statements roll in and we are left wondering how we managed it and vowing for a fresh start.

Whilst it may not be desirable, or even realistic, to aim to have an indulgence free Christmas, if you find yourself struggling with Christmas excesses, perhaps having a mindful as well as a Merry Christmas might be the very thing at the top of your list.

The concept behind mindfulness, which comes from Buddhist philosophies, is to attend to the present moment. To focus on the here and now, rather than either the past or the future. To perceive things as they really are, stripped of the labels, habits, and thought processes that they might typically trigger. This sounds like a simple concept, and it absolutely is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy!

Mindfulness therefore can be quite different to how we go about our everyday existence. Typically we do not notice the moments as they unfold in front of us, as we are so caught up in our endless streams of thought. We exist on auto pilot, reality flowing by unnoticed and unexperienced. We spend much of our time engrossed in activity, busying ourselves and filling our every minute with something to do. We spend our energies trying to make ourselves feel better, fleeing from pain and unpleasantness, seeking safety and security. Searching our minds and our worlds for happiness, meaning and purpose. Meanwhile, the real moments of our lives flow by untouched and untasted.

For example take having your morning shower. We do it almost without thinking. This experience has become so commonplace in our daily routine that we simply switch on to autopilot, leaving our mind to wander wherever it pleases before we ‘wake up’ and realise that we are out of the shower having mindlessly dried ourselves and are half way to getting changed. Now the experience of not being present when taking a shower is not doing us any harm, but who wants to live their life and not really be there for it. Not turn up and experience it in all its color and taste? But there are times that acting mindlessly cause us harm. Causing us to act out of habit rather than consideration. Nevermore so is this true than at Christmas time when our calendars and the shops are full of opportunities for over indulgence and mindless activity.

Here are a few ways that having a more mindful Christmas might benefit you:

Mindful Drinking
Make a positive start by practicing mindfulness when you drink. So often we simply accept and imbibe glasses of wine or bubbles that are given to us without thinking much more about it. Typically we are socializing whilst we are drinking and our focus is on making connections with those around us and enjoying a rare night away from the kids. When we drink mindfully on the other hand we bring awareness to the sensations the drink offer us in the here and now. We use our five senses to bring awareness to the experience. We slow things down and paradoxically by bringing awareness to what we are drinking we are often more satisfied with the experience, enjoying it more, and potentially drinking less.

When you start to take a sip bring awareness to this action. Notice how your hand and arm work together to bring the glass perfectly to your lips. Notice any urge you have to drink the liquid straight down and any thoughts or expectations you have about how the experience will unfold. As you drink don’t swallow immediately, but take a moment to savor. Notice the temperature, texture and taste. And as you swallow try to follow that mouthful down through the throat and into your stomach. When did you last drink this way? Have you ever drunk this way?!

If we are drinking whilst our mind is occupied by other things we only have a fleeting experience of the sensations and quality of what we are drinking. We may in fact not even realise that we are drinking anything at all. Typically we end up drinking more, always chasing that satisfaction, chasing the flavor. By bringing in a mindful awareness we begin to experience it for what it really is. We start to make choices not based on habitualised patterns of behavior, but on our needs and desires. For example, consider the habitual, socialized nature of drinking during the festive season. The majority of the time we are not making decisions about our drinking based on our level of need e.g. how thirsty we are, but automatic responses to social and environmental cues trigger our behaviors ( e.g. “fancy another one?”, “try this you are going to love it”, “one for the road?”.) By bringing a mindful awareness to the situation you allow yourself the opportunity to make the choice you want to make, rather than making the choice that you habitually make. If that’s to “have one for the road” then great! The difference is you consciously made that choice. You checked in with yourself, you considered the consequences and alternatives and made a conscious choice. You switched off autopilot and engaged with your experience in the present moment.

Mindful Eating
Being mindful when you eat is about devoting all of your senses to the experience of eating. Typically around the holidays food is abundantly available. The office fruit bowl becomes the chocolate tub, the lunch hour becomes a lunch afternoon and once the party season is in full swing there is no end to the food choices we are making on an almost minute by minute basis. Yet how many of us can say that we honestly devote all of our attention and focus to the act of eating? We devote a large portion of our time to cooking and baking but all too often wolf down the goods before they have even cooled properly! For the majority of us, much like drinking we eat mindlessly.On average we make around 200 food-related decisions each day, many of which are triggered by numerous subtle cues in our environment that encourage us to keep eating, even when we are no longer hungry. These triggers include smells, the variety and color of foods on offer, the number of people we eat with, labels and packaging, and even the lighting.So before you habitually accept what is on offer check in with yourself and ask “How hungry am I?” Ask yourself why you are going to choose to eat. Is it in response to physical hunger, or are you eating for emotional purposes, perhaps because you are feeling overwhelmed, happy or bored even? And if you choose to eat whilst you are out at party great, enjoy! But make sure it’s a conscious choice and you take the time to really savor and enjoy the food you are eating and not just mindlessly consume everything that you are offered!

So when you are choosing to eat mindfully remember to bring all of your senses to the table.  Breathe in the aromas, notice the textures, truly taste your meal. Slow things down and take the time to experience each and every bite from start to finish. Also take a moment to observe your thoughts. How do you typically talk to yourself and narrate your experiences? What kind of tone do you talk to yourself in? What is the content of your self-talk? Negative self-talk can be incredibly destructive, especially when it comes to food. Negative self-talk can make you feel guilty, disgusting and shameful. Which in turn may trigger overeating. It is important to bring an element of self-kindness to the table, along with the senses. And remember a thought is just a thought, not a fact. You can choose to believe it and act on it, or you can choose to just let it be.

Mindful Shopping
For many of us, shopping has become an impulsive, and relational activity that we engage in without much thought or presence of mind. Never is this more evident than at Christmas when the shops are brimming with enticing goods and the light lines streets are brimming with people falling victim to their mindless shopping habits. Yet in the current climate perhaps it is time that we become more mindful about what we buy, what we can really afford to spend and try to understand what is really controlling our urges and how this compares to our values and what really matters to us.  The pressure to buy and spend is everywhere and can feel overwhelming. In the run up to Christmas the opportunity’s to do so are more plentiful than ever, and you can even do it all from the comfort of your sofa these days.

So bring your mind more into line with your shopping habits and try to experience your Christmas shopping trips rather than making it a tick box exercise. The next time you find yourself shopping for a gift before you buy try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Why am I here?
  • How do I feel (good, bad, uncertain, guilty, sad, frustrated)
  • What if I wait?
  • Why am I so keen to buy this? Where is this urge coming from?
  • How will I pay for it?
  • How will the person make use of / put this gift?

As best as you can try to be aware of your experience of shopping. Be in the moment, enjoy the sights and sounds of Christmas and notice the little things all around you that usually go unnoticed. This might be gift enough in itself this year!

Have yourself a Mindful Merry Christmas.