How to use exercise to battle holiday stress

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Use exercise to battle holiday stress -

This may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it also can be the most challenging in terms of staying on track with the things that help make your life work.

Exercise, good nutrition, sleep and routine (see also: the components of the anxiety and depression toolkit) all suddenly find themselves beneath the trash heap of the merry and joyous eating season.

For me, the most tempting thing to do is give up exercise. I’m busy with added social events, and opportunities to spend time with others. I love that!

But after all that eating the last thing I want to do is move. Like, at all.

So that late day workout I swore allegiance to gives way to “just one” delicious buckeye and yummy barbeque sliders with friends.

Another workout busted.

It creates a bit of a cycle, I’m afraid.

Exercise matters and it matters big time.

Focusing on exercise is one of the first things I mention to people struggling with anxiety and depression. It’s one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to affect your mental health.

And it’s a great place to start because everybody can absolutely do something.

Exercise has a direct effect on your mood, helps reduce anxious feelings, increases serotonin in the brain, which can help you sleep, and increases your resilience to stress, which I think we all agree can go through the roof this time of year.

The American Psychological Association has coined this the “exercise effect.” In fact, the APA is encouraging mental health providers to make sure they include exercise as part of their treatment plans.

I consider exercise really a non-negotiable.  Apparently, I’m a broken record on this one.

Yet even as the words are coming out of my mouth to my clients, I realize I am just as crafty in my excuses to duck out of it during the holidays.

So with all the added activity and pressure of the season, how do you make exercise work for you when you need it most?

Don’t stress it. Make some simple changes to ensure you do something and don’t just go to zero effort.

Do it when you have few legitimate obligations.

Don’t roll your eyes, but really, it’s true that exercising in the morning is a great solution. It’s not the easiest to get started, but you have a better shot of making it happen before the day breaks.

You really do.

Unless you have some graveyard-style job, you always have the option to get up a bit earlier.

You won’t die from it, I promise.

For the time crunched, this is really the best way to find extra time in your day. Everyone else (hopefully) is still asleep, and the world hasn’t started its vicious merry-go-round yet.

Then, you are done! Yes!

The whole day is in front of you, and you are mentally and physically poised to handle whatever the day may bring.

And when unexpected plans come up, you can just go and not feel guilty about not exercising yet again.

Focus on doing something every day.

It’s great to try to hit physical activity a certain number of times a week, but right now that kind of contained thinking may create too much anxiety for you.

That’s just one more thing to track during the busy season.

Don’t make it a formal thing.

Instead, break it down and focus on just doing something today.

Anything. It all adds up.

  • Take a walk.
  • Go for a bike ride.
  • Go ice skating.
  • Go for a quick swim.
  • Do some yard work (assuming your yard isn’t full of snow. If so, grab a shovel, my friend.)
  • Do some yoga.
  • Dance. I hear that’s a thing.
  • Try an at-home exercise program (there are a million of them streaming on Hulu, Roku, etc.)

When you’re done, high five yourself. You did it!

Then just do that again tomorrow. That’s it.

No pressure.

Me after my Monday morning workout. See how happy I am? 🙂

Pardner up.

There is power in leveraging others to help you with this. Having someone hold you accountable to exercise works because nobody wants to be the one who “no-shows” in the relationship.

I would suggest picking the person in your life who is not afraid to challenge you (in a good way, of course).

Set up time to exercise with someone else and simply don’t leave ’em hangin.’ Once you get together, you’ll have a good time, I’m sure.

Honestly, today I was so tired, it’s Monday, and it’s raining. I felt like these things gave me some very high moral ground to stay in bed.

But my husband and partner in all things life wouldn’t let me. He’s also a mental health practitioner so he gave me zero wiggle room on this.

I needed that.

And when I was tempted to slack off a bit during the workout, he was there to cheer me on.

Hopefully I did the same for him.

Don’t overthink it; just do it.

Of course, you may want to set good, hard goals for exercise in the new year, but you don’t have to wait for January.

That’s just another excuse to not take action right now.

It’s not a terrible time to start exercising if you haven’t been already.

Don’t go crazy or injure yourself.

Keep it simple.

Just get (or keep) moving during the holidays.




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Beans, greens and dreams


Sandwiched between the Thanksgiving turkey, the Christmas duck, and the New Year’s black eyed peas and mustard greens (I’m southern, okay?) are the reflections on all the meaningful things we hoped to accomplish this year.

Did you do all the things you wanted to do this year? Did you finally pull any longstanding levers in your life this year?

If you did, congratulations!

Every step forward is a step forward. (You can totally feel free to tweet that 😜)

If not, I have good news. You get another shot at it this next year.

That’s the beautiful thing about waking up. Every day presents another opportunity to keep going.

But before you start swearing allegiance to all that is holy and just on your new goals for next year, ask yourself this question:

If I woke up tomorrow and my biggest problem in life was miraculously resolved, and everything was exactly how I wanted it, what would that look like?

Take a minute if you need it. [Insert “Jeopardy” music here]

Can you even answer that? Can you picture it? Can you feel it comin’ in the air tonight, oh Lord? (sorry…)

Most likely it’s difficult, which is weird, right?

Part of the problems we run into in achieving our goals and dreams is that sometimes we really don’t know what the heck we want. Not in a specific sense, anyway.

We know we want to be healthy, and successful, and witty and fun, and hopefully we want to have a positive impact on others.

But when we drill down on those things, our focus evaporates into a host of short-term stuff that’s easy to give up on. Like, we give up by February!

And we don’t always see how those short-term goals play into our larger efforts.

So we just stop or worse, get distracted by other stuff that makes us feel like we’re still moving.

Behold the miracle.

The aforementioned block quoted question is called the Miracle Question. It’s a key part of a therapy called Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT).

SFBT is like it sounds. It’s focused on finding workable solutions to problems, and it’s a short-term therapy.

You didn’t need me to tell you that.

Also, SFBT only focuses on your past in the sense that it’s useful to your future. What has worked before to get you where you wanted to go?

So SFBT is super future focused.

The miracle question helps clients try to picture their life and their future without their problems so they can come up with useful goals to start marching towards.

Easy enough.

Not really.

We talk about how great it would be to have all our problems go away, but then we have a hard time imagining just what our life might look like without them.

We tend to become so fixated on what’s not working that we don’t really know what it could look like when it actually is working.

The best part is that you know what you want (you do), and you know what works for you. You just have to sit still long enough to think it through.

So as the beans and greens are simmering in that delicious, bacony cocktail, I ask you:

If you could have what you want tomorrow, with no roadblocks and no limitations on your potential, what would that look like? What would you do then that you’re not doing now?

Chew on that over the next couple of weeks during the Hallmark movies, carbohydrate comas and ballgames.

Write it down.

Draw it.

Tell it to a trusted friend, or a complete stranger (who are they gonna tell?)

Visualize it. Daydream about it.

Put it on your grownup Christmas list.

Whatever you do to make things feel real to you.

Then you’ll have some good data to start thinking about creating meaningful new goals.



Keep your cool this holiday season

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The holidays are here, y’all.

The best thing about the holidays is spending time with family. But sometimes being around our families brings out some old patterns and anxieties we thought we had dealt with.

Unless you’re in a Christmas Hallmark movie, you might find yourself slipping back into some feelings you don’t like when you get around family.

Nobody pushes your buttons like your family, am I right?

And you know before you ever get there who pushes your buttons the most, don’t you?

Well, you can’t control your family.


But you can control how you react and what (and who) you’ll allow to mess with you.

You can set some boundaries so you can enjoy your holiday experience. Cuz you deserve that.

Here are a few ideas.

1) Have a plan.

Decide ahead of time how long you’ll stay at a family event. You know yourself and you know the point where you start getting too snarky with Aunt Martha.

There’s no rule that says you have to stay the whole time. Set a timeframe you’re comfortable with and that will let you pull the most good out of the experience.

Then you can walk away feeling good about your time.

Now, don’t announce it when you get there that you’re only staying two hours. And please don’t make a big deal about it when you’re ready to go (even though others may make a big deal about it).

You’re a grown up, you don’t owe them an explanation. Just a “thank you” for a wonderful time.

Part of having good boundaries is knowing how to make decisions for yoself without explaining yoself.

If you’re staying with family and can’t just leave, well, admittedly this is harder to do. Determine where you can retreat to when you’re ready for some space.

Bedroom, bathroom, that little space under the stairs. Whatevs.

2) Pick your battles.

Try, try, try to set aside your need to be right about anything or everything and whatever’s in between.

You probably already have a good idea of what’s going to get under your skin. Now, that doesn’t mean you allow people to be truly hurtful. That’s not what I’m saying.

But do you really need to answer and debate every annoying thing that bothers you? You’re not five anymore.

For some reason it’s so easy to feel defensive around our family. We want to answer for all the reasons why we’re doing this or not doing that.

When you’re ready to go there, hit that pause button and simply ask yourself this: Does my impending response advance the relationship in any meaningful way? (I would actually recommend this technique in most of your interactions, not just during the holidays.)

If that sounds like “letting some things roll off your back,” then you get an A because that’s kinda what it is.

Let it go!

After all, the holidays have such a short timeframe compared to the rest of your year.

You can be right when you get home.

3) Focus on what you do enjoy.

If it’s the food, the family bonfire, the weird neighbor, or that cool cousin you don’t get to see too much, then focus on those things.

Be proactive and engage the people and things you know you will enjoy. This will help the annoying things feel more like just noise than the main event.

Look around you and focus on the joy that’s already there.

4) Move around.

I know everybody says this but for crying out loud, get some exercise in all this somewhere!

Not after Thanksgiving dinner necessarily, you know, because of the carb coma.

But take some time for a walk or a bike ride, pull out your old pogo sticks from the garage, whatever.

It will help reset your focus a bit and get some blood flowing to the frontal lobe of your brain.

This is the region of the brain that controls your planning and responses, and it will keep you from going off on Aunt Martha.

Or you could bring that favorite cousin on a walk so you can talk about everybody else.

5) Remember, it’s not about you.

We all get triggered a bit by being in familiar surroundings, and we all revert back to patterns that we may not like.

The best thing about the holidays is the focus on being together and finding joy in spite of our differences and past annoyances.

Make the holidays about serving the needs of others and not yourself.

Focus on what you can bring to the table to make your holidays enjoyable.