How Believing Can Dismantle Seasonal Stress

    Make Positive Emotion Habit-Forming

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    Studies show that positive emotion and well-being can increase during the holidays, especially with regard to holiday rituals. Regardless of how stressed or frustrated you might feel during this time of year, you can improve your positive emotion by changing your reality. While you can’t control the stock market, the weather, or any election, you can change your view of reality without being Pollyanna-ish. You can control what you notice and your corresponding reaction, which comprises your external and inner reality, respectively. You can change your entire world.

    So what are you noticing? Do you notice the neighbors’ more lavish decorations or gifts? That you were excluded from a party or gathering? The disapproving look from your mother-in-law? Or do you notice the crisp, cool winter air? A stranger’s smile? That your mother-in-law always bakes your favorite holiday treat?

    What you notice is habit. Just as you can learn to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand, you can also get into the habit of noticing abundance, inclusion, love, and beauty instead of what’s missing, not good enough, or wrong. To improve your external reality, pay attention to where your focus is each day. If it’s in the wrong place, redirect it to something positive and satisfying. Repeat until you’ve created a new habit. Be patient – it takes time and effort to change any habit.

    Your inner reality is created by your belief system and your underlying expectations. For example, if I believe that I must set the perfect table, I should receive the most amazing gift, or that everyone must get along and behave at the holiday gathering, then I’m likely setting myself up for disappointment, stress, and resentment. Notice that each of these beliefs is an expectation, not a truth (see must and should in the previous statements?). When my perceived reality doesn’t materialize, I have a negative emotional reaction.

    My negative emotional reaction to my belief is based on expectations and assumptions. For example, perhaps my belief is: If I don’t have this, then I must be that. The first part of the sentence refers to your expectation, such as the perfect table or party. The expectation is connected to an assumption, such as being unsafe, alone, not deserving, or deprived. That assumption is often subconscious and an emotional land mine, and is not usually a truth.

    Therefore, by re-examining my beliefs, expectations, and assumptions, I can reverse this negative emotional cascade. Start with your external reality. Change the focus of your habit by noticing and recalling examples of when you got what you needed (for example, feeling loved). Next, focus on healing that assumption in others. For instance, instead of focusing on your feelings of not being loved, find ways that you are not being loving to others. Remedy that, especially with that person who is making you feel unloved. It’s hard, but do it anyway!

    Finally, imagine and pursue ways that you can provide what you need to yourself, and make that a priority during the holidays. After all, you know your own needs better than anyone. Perhaps healing your assumptions involves making time for your hobbies or friends, affirming yourself, having a long-overdue critical conversation with a loved one, saying no to a dreary task, or taking the time to listen to your innermost thoughts and dreams. Make a commitment to that self-care beyond the holiday season.

    That’s a gift that will keep on giving.

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    Susanna Wu-Pong
    Susanna Wu-Pong is an associate professor and director of the pharmaceutical sciences graduate program at VCU School of Pharmacy and a writer. She lives in Richmond and is the mother of two talented sons. She blogs about finding positive perspective in life at Silver Lining.