From Crazed to Calm

Tips, Tricks, and A Daily Action Plan For Keeping Your Mental Clarity During the Holidays
By Cara McDonald

You’ve spent ages prepping for the big end-of-the-year meeting, only to arrive without your notes (which are in a pile on your kitchen counter). On the way home, you stop at the store to pick up a gallon of milk and leave with everything but. You swore you’d honor Mom’s request for the whole family to attend service together—but you’re so frazzled getting the kids out the door that you arrive too late to get a seat.

Sound familiar? For most of us, living at a frenetic pace—and the resulting lack of clarity—are facts of life. But during the holidays, the deck is stacked even higher against us: A crazy schedule, wrecked routine, blown diet, and the emotional tension of trying to navigate intense family time and high expectations decimate our calm and focus.

It’s no wonder we blow up—or blow things off. “That kind of brain fog is frequently an avoidance response,” says holistic psychologist Doris Jeanette, founder of the Center for New Psychology in Philadelphia. “All of that anxiety and striving leaves us overloaded. So instead, we go into a brain fog and subconsciously forget, avoid, or off-load things. It’s a place where we don’t have to be responsible for what we’re doing.”

The key to getting past the anxious, disconnected state? “Resolve the root issues, don’t deny them,” says Jeannette. In other words, say yes to keeping a healthy routine and no to mental and emotional overload—and be assertive about it.  

To keep you on track, we’ve put together a daily action plan with specific, manageable strategies that will help you stay clearheaded this holiday season. Plus, we provide tips for how to navigate common holiday stresses.

Action Plan: Morning
Ditch the coffee. Too much caffeine makes you irritable, but dropping it cold turkey can make you cranky, too. When things get hectic, swap in a cup of green tea—you’ll still get a hit of caffeine, but with the calming effect of L-theanine; studies show that this amino acid found in tea leaves reduces anxiety levels.

Have a brain-boosting breakfast. A combination of fiber and protein is the best choice, says Manuel Vallarta, RD, a San Francisco-based dietician. “A perfect breakfast? I always recommend steel cut oats with blueberries and kefir,” he says. The oats are filling and a great source of energy. Blueberries are good for memory function and boast 40 times more potent antioxidants than any other fruit. Kefir or organic, plain yogurt offer a shot of protein, which stokes your metabolism and keeps you energized.

Set an intention. Compliments from your mother-in-law, peace at the dinner table, siblings who don’t regress into their childhood roles. If you want it, imagine it. According to psychologist Doris Jeanette, the way to stay clear-headed and tackle emotional family issues is to take some time to get in touch with your feelings about what you do want—and then be assertive about getting it. “The core of the work we need to do is to step out of being reactive and resistant,” says Jeanette. “If you don’t want to host family dinner this year, acknowledge that, then opt out for your own reason—not to get back at your sister because she never offers to host.” Take a few minutes at the start of your day for some relaxation, and envision the peaceful meal, the shared laughter, and the respectful interactions.

Action Plan: Afternoon
Take five outside. A recent study from the UK found that as little as five minutes of “green exercise”—a walk, exercise in a park, or puttering around in the garden—improves well-being and decreases the chance of mental illness. This may be a good excuse to finally get out there and string those holiday lights.

Avoid “screensuck.” The smart phones, computers, and other screened devices we use to multitask aren’t helping. The brain simply can’t do two things at once; it merely switches between them at lightning speed, leaving you in a state of constant interruption (and more likely to miss something important). “We’re just staring at a phone or computer, poking at it. It’s like keeping a jar of M&Ms on your desk. You can’t leave it alone,” says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy (Random House, 2006). Periodically turn away from your computer (or relegate it to a workspace), stow phones in a purse or briefcase, and flick off the TV when it’s just on for background noise.

Have a “happy” snack to beat stress. “We face stress all day, whether it’s running late, a nasty email, a forgotten appointment. These constant ‘attacks’ deplete the hormones serotonin and dopamine, which leave us feeling low,” says Vallarta. Choose a comfort food to soothe cravings, and make sure it has both carbohydrates and proteins. So that means no cookies. But it also means no bird food. “This is not the time of day to reach for carrot sticks,” says Vallarta. “They aren’t satisfying and won’t help you boost your mood.” Instead, opt for a more-satisfying cheese quesadilla; the protein in the cheese and carbs in the tortilla (use a whole-wheat or sprouted-wheat tortilla) will help rebuild serotonin and dopamine levels. Bonus: A filling snack now means less overeating at this evening’s party.

If you can squeeze in a workout, do it. It’s tempting to skip when things get this busy, but according to John Ratey, MD, author of Sparks: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), exercise helps regulate mood by elevating endorphins and raising dopamine levels. It also tackles anxiety and stress by increasing blood flow to the brain and providing a boost in protective neurochemicals. And you’ll feel less inclined to overindulge on sweets and alcohol later, because elevated dopamine levels help the brain’s ability to feel satisfied.

Action Plan: Evening
Set aside time to be unavailable. That badgered, harried feeling can make us feel frantic and worn out. “We think being available means we’re doing right by people,” says Hallowell, “but it comes at a cost.” Instead, retrain the people in your life who demand your time. Don’t answer work emails at night. Say no to interruptions during family dinner. Turn off the phone when you’re spending time with your partner. “Once people know how available you are, they will accept that and stop protesting,” Hallowell says.

Calm yourself for sleep. Stress—from a job, or relationships, or impossibly high expectations—creates an inability to switch off at night, and lack of sleep makes us irritable, emotional, and unable to think clearly. “I tell my patients to take five minutes every few hours to calm, breathe, and bring the buzz down,” says Catherine Darley, MD, founder of the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine in Seattle. Another tip? Jotting thoughts down in a sleep diary can help you track what sets you of versus what sets you up for a good night’s rest.




Tip: Say No Successfully
We so desperately want to say yes during the holidays—yes to Mom’s long visit or watching a friend’s pooch while she’s away. But for frazzled minds, one of the most healing things we can do for ourselves is to say no. “No is the word we must use to protect ourselves and to stand up for everything and everyone that matters to us,” says William Ury, author of The Power of a Positive No (Random House, 2007). Here are Ury’s tips for saying it gracefully and effectively. 

Uncover your higher yes
Behind every no is something you want to say yes to instead. For example, a no to coordinating the office holiday party means you can say yes to spending more time with your family making gifts or special meals.

Make your no's nice
When we’re overextended or protecting our boundaries, a no can come across as defensive and short; a no that is warm, respectful, and positive is more effective and preserves goodwill. Instead of “Sorry, I’m not available,” a more gentle no might be: “I’d love to, but I’m trying not to overextend myself this year.”

Negotiate to a healthy yes
If the request is important or has created tension within a valuable relationship, follow your no with a positive proposal: Maybe coordinating the holiday party is too much, but you’d be happy to help with sending out Evites or setting up the decorations.

 

Tip: Prioretize the To-Do List
When chaos descends and our holiday to-do list explodes, it’s not that we’re messy, lazy, or giving the season short shrift. “Frequently, I see clutter and procrastination in people who want so badly to be perfect that they don’t know where to start,” says Janine Adams, a certified professional organizer and owner of Peace of Mind Organizing in St. Louis. Here are her tips for surviving this season of hall-decking, houseguests, and trying to do it all.

Make your home guest-ready
Choose one high-priority space—say, the guest room or family room—and set a timer for 15 minutes for some emergency clutter-busting: Divide clutter into four piles (donate, relocate, save, trash), and sort through as much as you can in the allotted time. Set the timer again for 15 more minutes to act on your piles: Trash the trash, put away the relocate, stash the donate in your car to be dropped off. (Listen to Adams’ free audio program, which walks you through a power-decluttering session, at quickclutterfix.com.)

Tame the paper tiger
You select the perfect holiday cards, you buy the stamps, and then you feel so overwhelmed you just say “forget it.” “This is where you need to let yourself off the hook,” says Adams. Her answer? Address and send a card in response to each one that comes in. “You won’t hit everybody, but you’ll get the people who really wanted to stay in touch with you,” she says.

Trim the trimmings
“Most people have boxes and boxes of decorations and don’t usually use it all,” Adams says. “It’s not only a lot clutter, but the sheer volume of choices overwhelms you before you even begin.” When it comes to decorating, choose the most public area first, and if you run out of time, let it go. Or choose the area that makes you most happy, like a cozy den or your dining room. Also, when you go to put your decorations away this year, take a look at what you didn’t use, and consider parting with them.  

Acknowledge that you can’t do it all
“Let go of perfectionism,” says Adams. “So many people were brought up with moms whose generation really did the holidays—maybe moms who didn’t work outside the home. It’s hard to live up to that ideal. You really don’t have to do everything. Be kind to yourself so you can enjoy this time of year, not suffer through it.”

Tip: Choose the Brain Booster
Reduce anxiety, lower stress, balance your mood, and enhance your memory with these four key supplements.

GABA
Why: Recent studies show that gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) supplements help with relaxation and reduce anxiety.
Dosage: 3g to 18 g daily, as directed by your doctor

L-Theanine
Why: This amino acid reduces stress by inhibiting the excitement of certain neurons that create a stress response; it also increases focus and concentration. It’s found in green and other teas, which may be why studies show tea drinkers to be more relaxed.
Dosage: 100 mg daily

B Vitamins
Why: The entire family of B vitamins plays a critical role in maintaining mood, focus, mental clarity, and energy. B6 helps with mood; B1 has cognitive benefits.
Dosage: Up to 20 mg of each daily

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Why: They’re essential for brain development and overall health, as well as memory enhancing.
Dosage: 180 mg daily