The Science of Us Guide to Holiday De-stressing

Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez/Corbis

The most wonderful time of the year” is also, inevitably, an extremely stressful period. Even for those lucky enough to be spending time with their loved ones, there’s intense pressure to exude serenity and enjoyment, to appreciate the holiday season — a task which is reliably made difficult by the anxieties of holiday travel and shopping and, well, spending time with your loved ones.

So it’s probably as good a time as any to dive into some of the very straightforward exercises for improving psychological health that researchers have discovered. These are very low-tech interventions that take little time and no technology — if you have 10 minutes, a set of lungs, and a pen and a piece of paper, you can do all three. While none is a panacea — and none is a substitute for professional treatment if you are suffering with serious psychological difficulties — there’s evidence that all three can make you happier and less depressed or anxious (though individual results will vary, of course).

Full disclosure, of a sort: I’m bad at practicing what I preach here. Despite knowing that all three of the below practices are easy to do and are undergirded by a solid base of evidence, I rarely partake. It’s easy to say you’re going to do this stuff and then fail to follow through, especially during a very busy time. So I’d recommend at the very least setting a calendar appointment on your phone or email to help ensure that, regardless of the chaos of the days ahead, you’ll take 10 or 20 minutes a night to do one of the following.

1. Try the “three good things” gratitude exercise

This is probably the sappiest suggestion, but if you can get over that self-embarrassed feeling it’s also pretty straightforward and effective. All you do is sit down at night and write (or type) out three things that made you happy that day, and why each happened. So, to take a lame example, if I’d done this exercise yesterday I might have written: “I listened to a great song called ‘Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas’ by a group, Beach Slang, that I heard about since its album was featured on one of those year-end best-music lists.”

That’s it! It’s very simple. And yet if you stick with this exercise, there appear to be some real happiness dividends. In one study, a team of researchers led by happiness psychology pioneer Dr. Martin Seligman found that those who did the three-good-things exercise every day for a week experienced “increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months” as compared to a control group. And as Melissa Dahl pointed out in a story on gratitude from Thanksgiving, in another study, a group of students who had trouble sleeping as a result of racing thoughts “reported both quieter minds at night and improved sleep” after starting a gratitude journal that they wrote in for 15 minutes before bed.

2. Try meditating

Yeah, yeah — you’ve heard all about meditation at this point, mindful and transcendental and what have you. But the thing is that it really works for a lot of people, and it’s quite simple. Find a quiet place wherever you are, get comfortable, set a timer for 5 minutes, and attempt to focus only on tracking your breaths. In … out, in … out. That’s all there is to it. Do your best to keep still, but don’t beat yourself up over it if you have to shift or scratch an itch or whatever.

That doesn’t mean meditation is easy; undoubtedly, you’ll find your mind starting to wander, which is completely normal. But when yesterday’s crowded flight barges into your consciousness, simply note the existence of this thought without exerting any judgement about it, and then return to your breath. As you build your meditation “muscle” you can get fancier by trying out guided-meditation audio files and so on, but at the start, just focus on your breathing. If you stick with this practice, there’s significant evidence it can help reduce anxiety and depression symptoms — you’ll also likely feel much better afterward than you did when you started. (For a great tour of the meditation landscape by a journalist who was very skeptical when he started, check out Dan Harris’s 10% Happier.)

3. Do some personal writing

Gratitude exercises aren’t the only form of writing that have shown some promise as a psychological self-help tool. There are also a number of studies showing that simply sitting down and writing about how you’re feeling can make you feel better about things.

In one such study, students who wrote about their anxiety about a test prior to taking it performed better than a non-expressive-writing control group. Another involved veterans who were having trouble readjusting to civilian life. Those who were assigned a writing exercise to complete over a few different sessions reported significantly better outcomes across a variety of different measures — anger, physical and PTSD symptoms, reintegration difficulty, among others — than those who didn’t write, regardless of whether they were given an expressive writing assignment “to explore their deepest thoughts and feelings about their transition to civilian life,” or a more factual one about what they wanted Americans outside the military to know about veterans and their needs. While writing isn’t a cure-all, it appears to have salutary effects, perhaps because it helps us express things we might keep bottled up otherwise.