Right about now is the time when holiday stress season kicks in. Each passing day heightens the sensation of having more and more to do, with less and less time to get it all done.Yikes!

I use to find myself feeling this way every year. I never mastered the art of having everything done before Thanksgiving. 

I finally managed to learn catch the messages from body and mind telling me that things are getting to be too much, and that I needed to take some self-calming measures.

It’s that Most Wonderful [Busy] Time of Year

There’s a lot packed into our family’s holiday season. It addition to both Christmas and Channukah celebrations, it includes December January birthdays, and travel to gather with family.  

As much as this season is fun and beautiful, it is also a project, as Charlie Gilkey rightly notes in his new book, Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done. Just like a big work project, the holiday project takes time, effort and energy. And typically, I used to try to handle it in addition to all my other personal and professional projects.

The result? I got stressed. I had insomnia. I felt guilty.

Hold On A Minute!!

Some years ago I realized that I wanted less stress and more fun during the holiday season. The only way to do that was to reduce the expectations I placed on myself, and respond differently to what others ask of me. Or, as Charlie might put it, I had to defer a current project to make time, energy and effort available for the holiday project.

I found some things to let go of, like the making-handmade-gifts-for-everyone project, and I decided to release myself from other personal and professional projects during the holidays.

That is definitely easier to do when self-employed, but even while still working for others, I started setting better limits. I communicated these by saying “I’m sorry, but I have a full plate right now,” and “While I’m on vacation, I won’t be working.” Yes, those kinds of things are very counter-culture in the US, and certainly weren’t the norm where I worked. No one was more surprised that me when not only did no one got mad at me, I was respected for doing that.

Besides freeing myself of some projects, I wanted to continue others. One of those is my self-care practices. I need them to stay calm, healthy and centered. I’ve made self-care part of my daily routines as much as I can. I take  — time throughout the day for a few minutes of deep, slow breathing (which, by the way, I can do while standing in line at the post office. It beats getting more and more frustrated by the wait!); at least 30 minutes of bicycling (which I can do in part by using my bike to do errands) 5 days per week; and giving myself 10-15 minutes a day for expressive writing (which I do while having my morning coffee). Most recently, I’ve added doing self-Reiki to start and end each day. 

How to Quiet Your Mind with Expressive Writing

 Expressive writing is writing for an audience of one – ourselves. It honestly and deeply describes our truest thoughts and feelings, connecting them to both our positive and difficult life experiences. It allows us to understand and make meaning of the events in our lives, and their impact on us. 

A still-growing body of research dating from the late 1990’s shows that expressive writing supports resilience and well-being. It helps us heal from disruptive events and deepens our appreciation of positive experiences.

One of the benefits of expressive writing that it allows us quiet and clear our minds, something that is especially important during times of increased stress. It helps me step back and  find ways to do what Charlie so wisely advises – if I’m going to add a project, like all the holiday stuff, I have cut back on another project, or put something on hold.

Give it a Try

Free writing  is an easy-to-do form of expressive writing that not only helps with quieting our minds and finding a calm center. It also  strengthens creativity, problem-solving and productivity.

The general guidelines are:

  1. Take about 10-20 minutes. Be flexible about this. A few minutes is better than none. And writing for a longer time is fine, if you have the time and focus for it. Just avoid ruminating – saying the same thing over and over in the same way. That’s not so helpful. But going deeper into what you’ve already written, or going off in a new, perhaps unexpected direction can bring great insights. 
  2. Write continuously, starting with whatever comes to mind, letting the words flow, until your time is up.  If you find you run out of things to say, keep writing anyway. There’s no need to stress about this. Just write “I don’t know what to say!” over and over until your words begin flowing again. 
  3. Let go of the typical rules of writing.  That might feel awkward at first, especially if you write professionally. But for this purpose, don’t slow yourself down with , spelling, grammar, punctuation or editing. No one but you will see this writing.  
  4. Follow the writing wherever it leads you. When you’re done, read it over and notice any themes, ideas, or feelings that have surfaced. 
  5. Express your deepest, most honest thoughts and feelings.

When you’re done, look for the themes, ideas, or feelings that show up in your writing. What do you learn from them? Do they give you new insights, ideas, or questions? How might these be useful to you? Is there more to explore next time you free write?

Here are two ways to approach free writing to quiet your mind and find your calm center. 

1. Unstructured Free Writing

Free writing to start, or end, your day.  Doing it  in the morning can help you clear your mind and  feel ready for the day. Doing it before bedtime helps  quiet your mind, when it may be racing from the events and pace of the day,  allowing  you to  relax and sleep well.  Pick a writing schedule that suits you. This could become a daily or weekly ritual, or it could be something you do occasionally. 

Just put pen to paper, or open a document in your e-device and start writing, beginning with whatever is on your mind! Afterwards, and that can be later on in the day, read what you wrote, looking for key themes, ideas you want to explore further, or new perspectives.

2. Focusing On A Topic 

For more structure and for focus on a particular topic,  start out with a question, or prompt. Follow the general writing guidelines above.

Here are some examples:

  • How am I feeling right now?
  • What’s most important to me today?
  • What makes feel compelled to respond to everyone else’s needs and requests?
  • I’m sitting here trying to write about ________________ [topic or question]. It’s bringing up a bunch of disconnected thoughts, like….
  • _____[this topic] is bringing up a lot of strong feelings, like …..
  • I’d like to understand better why I reacted to ___________ the way I did.  I wonder why I felt ……

Follow up this writing by reading it to find the themes, insights and perspective shift that can help you make some changes.

References and Credit

Pennebaker, J.W. & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down. How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J. F. (2014). Expressive writing: Words that heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor, Inc

Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

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