I’ll get straight to it – the reason why I’m writing about remaining present during the holiday season is personal. For the last few years, I’ve found myself caught in the following cycle:
Those of you reading this post feel all sorts of ways about the holidays. Some of you are ambivalent, while others feel a sense of dread – for you, remaining present may not feel like a priority this year. But for me, I really want to feel connected with the holidays, and the fact that I don’t is frustrating.
I want to feel differently about the holidays. The problem is, I only have control over so many things. I can’t change the fact that I will always grieve for my mother this time of year. I can’t help the involuntary memories that continually transport me back in time, nor do I think I’d ever want to. And I certainly can’t desert my parental holiday responsibilities in the present-day.
The way I see it, all I can do is to try to strike a balance that provides (1) space for my holiday grief (2) time to cope with my general baseline stress and anxiety and (3) times when I can remain fully present with the holiday moments that matter. Or, in other words, times when I try to have “present moment awareness.”
What is present moment awareness?
A common-sense definition for present moment awareness is merely paying attention to what is happening in the present. Though if you want to get complicated, researchers have defined it as the:
“…continuous monitoring of experience with a focus on current experience rather than preoccupation with past or future events” (Cardaciotto, Herbert, Forman, Moitra, & Farrow, 2008, p. 205).
Those of you who are grieving may have spotted a problem already. No preoccupation with the past? How is one supposed to remain connected with their memories, process their grief, etc. if they don’t spend time focusing on the past?
The answer here is that grieving people do need to spend time focusing on the past. You will never hear us say that people need to put the past behind them. In fact, taking time to connect with loved ones and to process difficult emotions actually helps a person to stay present when the time comes.
The point of this article is to help you remain present if and when you experience holiday moments, traditions, or events that are important to you. Super simple, right?
Well, not exactly.
There are many benefits to having present moment awareness. If you don’t want to take my word for it, a quick Google search will connect you with articles about its positive effects, but two biggies are that it increases our ability to manage stress and constructive coping. That being the case, if it were super easy, we’d all be doing it. But it’s not, especially for people who are grieving, and that’s where our tips come in.
8 Tips for Remaining Present at the Holidays
1. Notice the ways your loved one is still present:
Something I find incredibly comforting in grief is the idea that we don’t leave our loved ones behind, we bring them with us into the present.
If you’re finding it difficult to connect with the present because you’re overwhelmed by memories of the past, challenge yourself to identify 5-10 ways that you’re loved one is still present. You may notice them in objects, traditions, your child’s laugh, your shared values, the way you continue to talk to them, and so on.
2. Focus on one thing at a time:
Many people don’t realize that multitasking is a myth. What you’re really doing is switching your focus back and forth between tasks, stopping, and starting over again each time. Not only are time and efficiency are lost in this transition, but are you ever able to be fully present with either task? If you’re like me, the whole time you’re doing one task, you’re thinking about and planning for the next.
Now, layer grief-brain on top of this process, and you’ve got a big ole mess! Think about it – on any random Tuesday grief wreaks havoc on things like memory and concentration. Add the stress of the holiday season, and you’re lucky if you correctly matched your shoes this morning.
3. Talk to yourself about what you are doing:
Even better, talk to your loved one about what you are doing. One of our readers, Joni, recently shared in her grief recipe story published on WYG:
“On good days, I think of myself as experiencing the physical world for him now…”
She was talking about baking cookies, but I think this idea extends here. Think of yourself as describing the physical world to your loved one. For example, tell them how the holiday decorations look as you put them up or what your kitchen smells like as your cookies finish baking. By illustrating what you are doing, you take the time to notice the intricacies of the moment. Bonus: this is also on our list of 64 tips for coping with forgetfulness in grief.
4. Allow yourself to lose track of time and get lost in the moment:
Okay, okay, so this can be difficult for grieving people for a number of reasons. First, many people have shared with us that the second they notice themselves becoming lost in a moment, they feel guilty for not thinking about their loved one. Remember, it’s okay to take a break from your grief. It also okay to feel things like joy and happiness. As we said in our recent post, 7 Ways to Go Easy on Yourself While Grieving During the Holidays, experiencing positive emotions does not mean you are not also grieving.
Second, stress and general holiday busyness take away from one’s ability to get swept away in a moment. We know time is a limited commodity in December, but to the extent that you can prioritize the experiences you actually care about – do. For example, if trimming the tree is an important event for your family, plan to do it on a day when there aren’t a million other activities pulling at you. Schedule more time than you need so you can pace yourself and process different memories and emotions as they come up.
5. Minimize phone and social media distractions: You know this tip had to make the list.
6. Reduce avoidance:
Avoidance is a funny coping skill because a large percentage of the time, it backfires. Psychologists like to illustrate this with the white bear trick. The white bear trick is when I say to you, “Hey, don’t think of a white bear, okay?” and what is the next thing you do? You think of a white bear. Point being, sometimes, the more we tell ourselves NOT to think about something, the more it haunts us.
People who engage in chronic avoidance get stuck in a cat-and-mouse game where they waste a lot of time, energy, and attention running from unpleasant experiences and emotions that will not stop giving chase. And, you guessed it, this type of avoidance distracts a person from the present moment in a big way.
7. Take the time to cope with distressing grief thoughts and emotions:
When you’re grieving, the present moment can be a scary place because grief triggers and distressing thoughts and emotions live there. But, the key to coping with these experiences is actually to allow yourself to experience them and find constructive ways to cope with them.
You have to find the coping that works for you, but we often recommend things like journaling, creative expression, talking to a friend, and going to counseling. Theoretically, the more one utilizes outlets for coping with their grief, the less distracting it will be over time.
8. Savor moments of peace, happiness, and comfort: Psychologists studying mindfulness and present moment awareness talk about ‘savoring’ which involves, “..responding to positive experiences with thoughts and behaviors intended to increase and potentially prolong enjoyment…” This goes hand in hand with a coping skill we’ve discussed before: gratitude.
Examples savoring the moment include thinking about the pleasurable aspects of an experience, expressing gratitude for the moment, allowing oneself to smile or express positive emotions, focusing on the sensations of the moment (i.e. sight, touch, taste), and telling others about the positive experience.
Look, I know this sounds like a lot to people who are grieving because positive moments can feel few and far between. But this is actually an ideal coping skill in these instances because, when you do have a good moment, savoring it allows you to stretch its positive benefit beyond what they would be if you were only paying half-attention.
Alright, it’s Thursday before the holiday break and I’ve written so much this article has become a distraction unto itself. If you have suggestions for remaining present during the holidays, share them below. Otherwise, subscribe!