People often say the holidays are “the most wonderful time of year.” But, in reality, they aren’t always all filled with merriment and mistletoe.
In fact, at this time of year, many people find it especially hard to grapple with painful memories of long-gone, happier times…or of loved ones lost. And this year, as the coronavirus pandemic panic continues to drag on, you may feel even more stressed or depressed from the never-ending social isolation, political upheaval, and economic uncertainty.
Fortunately, as I’ll explain in a moment, there’s one science-backed, mind-body approach that can help you reduce your stress and feel more connected to others. Best of all, you can do it from the comfort of your own home!
I’ll tell you all about that powerful tool in just a moment. But first, let’s explore the different reasons why 2020 has been such a difficult year for so many…
2020 has been one for the books
Some of my last, “normal,” pre-pandemic memories date back to Christmas 2019 in Sarasota, Florida. The warmth, sun, sand, and palm trees made the town feel like a traditional Biblical setting. We also took long, slow, evening drives and walks to enjoy Christmas light displays and open air re-enactments of the nativity scene—complete with live sheep, goats, donkeys, camels, and even an elephant. (Remember, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus spend winters in Sarasota.)
But by March, the local government in Sarasota and all across the country had begun to react to the coronavirus pandemic and shut down normal, day-to-day life. They even restricted access to important medical care, which triggered a grim wave of health problems entirely unrelated to the “novel” virus…
For example, in Sarasota County alone, during the first six months of the 2020, there were more than double the number of opioid related deaths than in all of 2019.
These deaths occurred as a direct result of increasing stress, while cutting off people in chronic pain from non-drug, pain-relief approaches—such as acupuncture, bodywork, and massage. So, instead of using natural approaches, they had to use opioid drugs for their pain. (Remember, doctors still continued to write drug prescriptions at their “normal” rates during the shutdown.)
When this skyrocketing pain problem combined with increased despair and depression, we suddenly had a drastically worse national crisis on our hands. Overdose (OD) deaths jumped nationally by almost 20 percent last March, by 30 percent last April, and by more than 40 percent last May.
Now, as this tragic year winds down, public health and government officials continue to discourage healthy, holiday, face-to-face, social gatherings. Even among family! So you may feel more stressed, lost, and disconnected than ever.
But you can overcome these dark feelings by regularly incorporating this ancient, mind-body exercise into your daily routine…
Cultivate kindness to reconnect with the world
Scientific studies shows that practicing mindfulness meditation can help boost your mood and rewire your brain to help you reconnect in meaningful ways to the world around you.
In fact, in one illuminating study, researchers divided people into two groups. The first group took a course to learn how to practice a type of mindfulness meditation known as “metta” (or “loving-kindness” meditation). When you practice this type of meditation, you focus on cultivating positive feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill toward yourself and others. The researchers asked the participants to practice the meditation at home, but didn’t require a certain number of sessions per week.
The second group remained on a “waiting list” for the course.
Well, after six weeks, the meditators improved their outlook on life and felt more connected to others. Plus, their physical health benefitted as well.
They even improved the “tone” of their vagus nerve (also known as the “wanderer nerve”). This is the longest nerve in the body, and it plays a key part in regulating major bodily functions, including your breathing, heart rate, and digestion. In addition, people with better “vagal tone” typically respond better to stress and have healthier, more meaningful social interactions.
Try meditation in 2021 to reduce stress
With the holiday season upon us, there’s never been a better time to try meditating. Even if it’s just five minutes a day. It can make a huge difference for your health and well-being during this difficult time of year.
Here’s how to get started:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths.
- Think of what you want for your life. Is it health? Peace? Love? Hold that thought.
- Repeat to yourself silently, “May I be healthy (or happy, or peaceful, etc.).” If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your wish for yourself.
- Picture someone you care about. Repeat the same phrase for that person, while holding his or her image in your mind: “May you be healthy (or happy, or peaceful, etc.).”
- Now picture someone you don’t have any feelings about—maybe the person who was in front of you in line, or the barista, at the coffee shop this morning—and direct the wish to him or her.
- Think of someone you have negative feelings about and direct the wish toward him or her.
- Now direct the wish toward the whole world: “May everyone, everywhere be happy (or healthy, or peaceful, etc.).”
- Slowly open your eyes and return to your day, keeping this expansive feeling of benevolence with you.
I think you’ll find that when you regularly practice loving-kindness meditation, every day of the year can be the most wonderful time of year. For all the details on meditation, see my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness.
P.S. I also talk about new research that reveals a few quick, easy, and stress-soothing techniques you can do in the comfort of your own home in the upcoming issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures. So if you haven’t already, consider subscribing today. You won’t want to miss it!
“How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone.” Psychological Science. 2013;24(1123-1132). doi.org/10.1177/0956797612470827
“Loving-kindness meditation for posttraumatic stress disorder: a pilot study.” J Trauma Stress. 2013;26(4):426-434. doi.org/10.1002/jts.21832