Five Gifts and a Lagniappe

Arlene R. Taylor PhD

“I absolutely hate holidays—everything goes into fast forward!” The young woman grimaced, gestured dramatically, and disappeared into the break room.

Further down the hallway, her colleague burst through his office doorway, forehead furrowed, body radiating coiled tension. He paused in midstride long enough to mutter, “Holidays! They’re all the pits!”

In the quiet room the Chaplain shook her head ruefully as she told the physician confidentially, “I just spoke with your patient. Her parents separated nearly fifty years ago on July 4th, and she still dreads that holiday.”

According to Webster’s Dictionary the word holiday denotes a day when one is exempt from work, or a time to commemorate an event, or a period of relaxationeven a vacation. The word stress, on the other hand, refers to a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existing equilibrium. That makes the term holiday stress something of an oxymoron, a combination of incongruous words. It is difficult to commemorate an event with relaxation and pleasure when you are in a state of bodily or mental tension!

Unmanaged, holiday stress can contribute to depression, addictions, debt, overeating, weight gain, attempts at self-medication through a variety of helpful (or not so helpful) options, and suicide attempts. Handled successfully, holidays can add spice, enjoyment, and meaning to life.

Are your holiday memories positive, negative, or neutral? When I answered that question for myself, it quickly became clear that mine were a mixed bag. During part of my childhood we lived on the Canadian prairies. My brother and I joked that we could expect about three days of hot weather each year. Memorial Day weekend was a signal that summer might be just around the corner. If the weather cooperated we could wear short sleeves and pedal pushers to the annual spring picnic, and start on a tan. Memorial Day weekend was definitely a favorite!

December holidays were a different story! They arrived with snow and more snow, often piled higher than a horse’s head. And with the snow came wind in varying velocity. Sometimes it coated bare tree limbs with shimmering hoarfrost or drove ice crystals through the tiniest cracks in doorjambs and storm-window frames. And the cold. Relentless, bone-jarring, unforgiving, biting, 30-or-40-degrees-below-zero cold! Curled up with a favorite book in front of the fireplace (if there had been a fireplace in our home) would have been one thing. Bundled in layers of protective gear and going from house to house singing Carols and requesting donations for food baskets was another. December holidays were not a favorite of mine!

Stress is part and parcel of life. It lets you know you are alive. In fact, the absence of stress is death. Any change in routine can be a stressor and holidays usually involve changes in routine. Think beyond national celebrations—Christmas/Hanukkah, New Year’s, Cinco de Mayo, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day—to any event that commemorates an important event in your life. This could be the anniversary of a birth, death, marriage, divorce, miscarriage, layoff, bankruptcy, or adoption. Any one of these could have a greater impact on your brain than the more traditional holidays.

Your perception of what is stressful is influenced by a whole host of factors, including your own innate giftedness (e.g., individuals with a highly introverted brain can find holidays to be overstimulating and high-energy times), past experiences, expectations, beliefs and attitudes, perceptions, and personal preferences, to name just a few. Which holiday is the most stressful for you? Have you typically approached it from a grin and bear it stance, if you can’t avoid it altogether just try to survive the inevitable? Have you already learned to approach it from a position of empowerment? If yes, validate what you’re doing! If no, there is hope!

Your brain is as different as your thumbprint. Therefore your holiday stress will be unique, as will your strategies for handling it. Some counselors have estimated that about half of most people’s problems are of their own making, based on the way they think. Imagine getting rid of 50% of your holiday stressors just by giving yourself five gifts and a lagniappe! Implement them now and look ahead with confidence.

Gift #1: Live the 20:80 Rule. The 20:80 Rule represents wisdom that Epictetus shared with the world more than seven centuries ago. This philosopher believed that only about 20% of the impact to your mind and body was related to the event (e.g., what happens to you), while 80% was due to your perception of it (e.g., the importance you assign to it). The 20:80 Rule is an elegant way of saying that your expectations definitely impact outcome. You may not choose to, or even be able to, eliminate the 20%, but you can exercise a surprising amount of control over the 80% by managing your expectations, by changing the way you think. That’s the difference between efficiency (doing things correctly) and effectiveness (doing the correct things).

Whether or not they’re functional and desirable, or have completely outlived their usefulness, traditions and rituals are powerful. So powerful in fact that your learned responses and expectations related to them may be causing you needless suffering. For example, if you expect Great Aunt Tilly to affirm everyone in general,and you in particular (even though she hasn’t thrown one kind word your way in 50 years), your expectations will set you up for disappointment. On the other hand, if you expect her to behave as usual, and set personal limits that work for you, any improvement in her behavior can be viewed as a bonus. Avoid getting caught up in the agendas of others or sucked into hype and commercialism.

Think about your most stressful holiday. What is your history related to this holiday? Good, neutral, or awful? Rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 indicating abject dread and 10 indicating joyful anticipation. You may find it helpful to use the Holiday Stress Grid (see attached). Jot down your expectations. Are they mature, realistic, and doable? If not, revise your expectations and post them where you can see them easily. Make a clear decision to be true to them. You may need to do some pre-holiday negotiations and implement more appropriate personal boundaries. An ounce of prevention before the holiday arrives is worth ten pounds of cure afterward. Expect to be successful and you’re almost there!

Gift #2: Learn to Upshift Quickly. Highway vehicles generally function most efficiently when they are in high gear, downshifting only when absolutely necessary. The same holds true on the highway of life. The brain can be described in terms of three functional layers that can be compared to gears in vehicle. Under situations of trauma, threat, or crisiswhen the going gets toughthe brain tends to downshift and access responses and reactions that are perceived to be safer.

The ability to downshift can be helpful temporarily, but you always give up something to get something. When downshifted you may:

• React more automatically (reflexively, instinctually) and be resistant to change
• Follow old learned beliefs and behaviors regardless of information available in the present
• Experience a reduced ability to take environmental and internal cues into consideration
• Be less able to engage in complex intellectual tasks, especially those requiring creativity and the ability to engage in open-ended thinking and questioning
• Develop phobias (e.g., specific stimuli can trigger inappropriate responses)
• Be prevented from learning and/or generating solutions for new problems
• Fail to see interconnectedness or interrelations
• Experience altered immune system function and brain chemistry
• Accelerate the aging process, especially if downshifting is prolonged or becomes chronic
• Over-react out of proportion to the situation at hand

It is important to recognize downshifting so you can upshift as quickly as possible. To do this, increase conscious awareness of your own key stressors, patterns, and symptoms:

• Stressors*are they primarily individuals, substances, thoughts, noises, locations, tasks, foods?
• Patterns*do you exhibit symptoms at certain times of the day/week/month/year?
• Symptoms*do you experience changes in heart rate, breathing, body temperature, energy levels, attitude?

Dig to uncover core issues. Be honest. Create a collage of what happens to your brain and body when you are confronted with holiday stressors. What do you look like and how do you behave? Use this information as an early warning system that your brain has downshifted. Over time, conscious awareness can kick in about the same time as the first stress symptoms make their appearance. The knowledge you gain can enable you to implement strategies to take better care of yourself. With a bit of forethought you may be able to avoid a specific stressor altogether, or at least minimize your exposure.

Gift #3: Use the Quieting Reflex. At the first sign of a stress symptom break the cycle quicklywithin the first 6-7 seconds if possible. The sooner you do this, the fewer stress symptoms you’ll likely experience. You may even be able to avoid downshifting altogether. Herbert Benson’s Quieting Reflex, a strategy designed to counteract the first few seconds of the Fight/Flight reaction form, can be helpful. It can be used almost anytime, almost anywhere. According to Dr. Benson, there are five steps that can be accomplished in a matter of seconds:

• Smile to counter facial tension. This tiny action can stimulate the release of positive neurochemicals in your brain. Think of it as a mini anti-depressant without a doctor’s prescription or a trip to the local pharmacy!

• Talk to yourself. Say, “I am alert and calm.” Look for some humor in the situation. Try to find something to chuckle about, even if no one else seems to recognize the funny side of life. Laughter can trigger the brain to release neurochemicals that can help you to feel more positive.

• Breathe deeply to increase oxygen to your brain. The additional oxygen can help you to be more alert, to think more clearly, and it can help to defuse strong emotion. Stand or sit “tall” as you breathe. This action can enable you to feel more empowered.

• Exhale slowly and allow your muscles to momentarily relax. Hang limp for a couple of seconds. A change is a good as a rest! If the situation in which you find yourself truly is dreadful, think of this action as positioning you in the eye of the storm. Some say it’s the safest place to be in a hurricane!

• Resume your activities. This is a good time to take stock of the situation. Are you back in third gear? Do you need to set a personal limit or implement a boundary? Do you need to remove yourself from the situation, eventemporarily?

I have found it helpful to imagine the worst thing that can happen, decide if I can live with it, and then take appropriate action to minimize negative outcomes. Actually, the worst-case scenario rarely materializes.

Gift #4: Hone your E.Q. Emotional intelligence, the ability to be intelligent about your emotions, is important to success in life. Emotions are internal signals that alert you to what is going on around and inside you. Think of them as magic molecules that translate information into physical reality (e.g., rapid pulse, sighing, clammy palms, unsettled stomach, perspiration, blushing, breathing changes, headache), which provides you with information and energy to manage a variety of situations safely and appropriately.

You are much more likely to store memories in the brain when the encounter contains an emotional component. That’s likely why holiday memories can be so impactful, euphoric or abysmal! Ignoring your emotions or pretending they don’t exist is generally unhelpful. So is permitting them to take over your life or occupy the driver’s seat. They’re just signals. Use the information and energy they provide to help you make functional decisions and take appropriate actions. When you react out of proportion to any given situation, the overreaction usually relates to the past and may have little, if anything, to do with the current moment. In other words, the reason is never the reason. Something about the present situation or individual involved reminded your brain of something in the past, and brought the force of that memory to bear on the present moment.

Overreactions usually involve emotions. If you perceive yourself about to overreact or recognize yourself in the middle of an overreaction, stop, take a deep breath, observe, and evaluate. Ask yourself what there is about this situation that reminded your brain of something from your past? Identify that “something,” bring it to conscious awareness, and deal with it appropriately. That’s being emotionally intelligent. Marcus Aurelius taught that when you are upset by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it, and that you have the power to alter your estimate at any moment. That’s the purpose of recovery, to retain the memory of the incident without the original sting and/or without allowing it to impact your present moment in an adverse manner.

Gift #5 : Live in Balance. In general, what is good for your immune system is good for your brain. Determine to take good care of your brain and bodyand actually do it! Make generous deposits into your stress-prevention bank in terms of sufficient sleep and relaxation, adequate water intake, daily exercise, nutritious food, positive mindset, humor, play, and nurturing relationships (e.g., friends, co-workers, family/family-of-choice, partner, Higher Power) just to name a few. Be judicious about your intake of caffeine, sugar, and alcohol.

A balanced, high-level-wellness lifestyle is important all the time but especially necessary during holidays. Illness, minor injuries, accidents, and depression often increase during or following holiday periods. This is often due, at least in part, to our allowing some aspect of life to get out of balance. It’s much easier for stressors to trigger illness or overreaction when you are living an unbalanced life. Even a good thing taken to the extreme can be detrimental. Treat yourself to a consistent high-level wellness lifestyle. It’s great insurance and can pay huge dividends over time.

Lagniappe. The word lagniappe first crossed my conscious awareness in New Orleans. During a tour of antebellum homes, my guide explained that this was a Creole term meaning something special, a little something extra, or an unexpected surprise. On that occasion, our lagniappe was a delicious Louisiana pecan praline. Think of the Serenity Prayer as a lagniappe. It has become increasingly familiar, especially with the advent of 12-step programs. Think of it as an affirmation for your brain to follow. Although developing and exhibiting the behaviors it describes (in a graciously functional manner) may be a lifelong process, there’s no time like the present to get started. Holidays can provide plenty of opportunity for practice! Human beings spend a relatively short amount of time on this planet. These gifts can help you approach holiday situations more effectively and exhibit behaviors that are more balanced and functional. Give these gifts to yourself and others. Use them throughout the year to manage stressors more effectively. It can make all the difference in the world. Expect to be successful and you’re almost there!

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. --Reinhold Niebuhr, The Serenity Prayer (1934)

Author's Bio: 

Brain Function Guru
Dr. Taylor, one of the world's leading speakers on brain function, specializes in simplifying this complex topic--unleashing the potential to thrive. Whether through keynote addresses, seminars, consulting, coaching, television and radio, or her internationally-known books and syllabi, success stories pour in from the four corners of the world. Her books are a must-read. Her profound and illuminating seminars are life-changing.
Arlene R. Taylor, PhD, is founder and president of Realizations Inc, a non profit corporation that promotes brain function research and provides related educational resources. As a leading brain function specialist, her desire to share the information with others provided a natural progression into the speaking world. She is a sought-after charismatic speaker who presents practical brain function information in entertaining, educational, and empowering ways.