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Surviving vs. Thriving Through the Holidays (and Beyond)


Welcome to my blog, where you'll find substantive, well-researched articles that blend neuroscience, philosophy, poetry, personal reflection, and the latest life coaching tools in service of helping people engage their full potential. 


Surviving vs. Thriving Through the Holidays (and Beyond)

Kirstin Hotelling Zona

Hello, Lovelies!

Anticipating the holidays is often a lot of fun: we feel cozy and excited as we imagine the shared rituals, connections, and the memories we'll make. 

And yet holidays are often times of stress, anxiety, and even panic, as the fantasies we nurtured en route to the big day collide with the reality of triggers and stress-induced habits that we'd hoped (this year!) we'd overcome.

This is why, as I write, your inboxes are filling with various guides for "surviving" the holidays.

But I'd like to give you something different: I want to help you not simply survive, but thrive this holiday season—no matter what your plans are, no matter who you'll be with, no matter where you are. 

To start, I invite you to consider this: surviving isn't merely a not-quite-fully-inflated version of thriving, but the pin that pops the potential of personal expansion before we've even gathered the requisite lungful of air. 

For the vast majority of our existence, Homo sapiens were wired to survive: we lived smack-dab in the middle of the food chain, an unremarkable species. As such, we developed a quick-acting mechanism for survival—the fear response, what's often referred to as "fight, flight, or freeze." When faced with danger (which was often enough of the life-threatening sort) our brains triggered a watershed of cortisol and epinephrine, stress hormones that quickly coursed through our veins, triggering in turn a no-thought, rapid-fire, hopefully life-saving impulse: Fight! Run! Hide! 

This fear response enabled us to encounter and survive genuine danger on a daily basis; it kept us alive—and staying alive, for the great majority of human history, was synonymous with thriving (Bee Gees, yes...).  

But about 70 thousand years ago, with the evolution of the pre-frontal cortex and the refinement of language as we know it today, Homo sapiens leapt to the top of the food chain in record speed (ecologically speaking). The result of this shift meant, among other things, that we developed very quickly into a species whose instinctual response to fear is often out of alignment with the circumstances that beget it. 

Let me explain, briefly: if you are reading this email, you likely do not encounter life-threatening danger on a daily, or even monthly or yearly basis.

But your brain doesn't know this. Today, when we experience fear, it is more often than not a response to a terrifying emotion, not a predator. Shame, humiliation, rejection, anger—these are a few of the emotions that, if not managed, easily trigger our fear mechanism, prompting us to react by either being aggressive (fight), withdrawing (flight), or buffering our feelings with food, alcohol, drugs, overwork, overspending, drama—you name it (hiding). None of these responses help us, in the long run, to thrive; indeed, they sabotage thriving in the name of surviving

In short, what long ago enabled us to survive often thwarts our capacity to thrive today. 

As we near Thanksgiving and kick off the holiday season, a time when expectations are ramped up and emotions run high, I invite you, then, to pause, and ask yourself:

Am I (with the best of intentions!) gearing up to survive this season? Or am I setting myself up to thrive

Maybe the answer to this question is obvious to you, but if you're like me, you're not always sure; survival-mind is so deeply normalized by our culture today that we often don't realize when we're caught in its grip. Hyper-consumption (the f.o.m.o. fomented by Black Friday, Cyber Monday... the belief that eating and drinking well past the point of our body's comfort or health means we're in sync with the "holiday spirit"...), overspending and over-commitment, and habitual people-pleasing are just a few ways in which we perpetuate and naturalize survival-mindset, that deep-grooved network of beliefs that whispers there's not enoughmore is better, and that's just the way it is

You know you're in survival mindset if you're bracing for the days ahead. You know you're in survival mindset if you're letting yourself off the hook with regard to self-care (eating well, sleeping enough, honoring your boundaries and priorities) in the name of being festive, fun, a "good friend" or a "good host." You know you're in survival mindset if you're striving for perfection, if you're spending more time thinking about what others will think of your efforts than you spend enjoying those efforts along the way, and if you're responding to feelings of overwhelm by shifting into auto-pilot, that slightly numb state of being in which we tell ourselves that the delayed reward of "getting it all done" justifies the edgy cortisol high we're riding through a sea of seemingly endless tasks. 

But what, you might be wondering, if surviving the holidays really does feel like an achievement? What if this time of year is laden for you with feelings of loss, grief, loneliness or trauma? What if bracing yourself against the force of these emotions feels like a necessary act of self-preservation and care? 

If this is your experience—and for many I know and work with, it is—I invite you to ask yourself what exactly it is that is making you feel sad, anxious, or alone? Is it the absence of someone you love, and have lost? Is it the ache of cherished memories, the mourning of rituals shared but no longer a part of your life? Is it a feeling of being left out, of not belonging? Is it a fear that you're not lovable, worthy of companionship and joy? Is it the sheer and pungent ache of grief?

Once you've identified the nature of your emotion, I invite you to ask yourself this question: What am I making this emotion mean? 

Are you judging yourself for feeling as you do? Are you criticizing yourself, blaming yourself, shaming yourself, or pitying yourself? Are you comparing yourself (and coming up short) to the images of all-smiles-and-hugs greetings and meetings that plaster ads, social media, and Netflix at this time of year? 

It's one thing to have a difficult emotion and feel it, and another to have a difficult emotion and resist it—and the holidays, with their non-stop commercialized messaging about what's expected and what's not, provide ample occasion for self-shaming, and therefore the latter. 

But when we criticize, label, or try to "fix" an emotion, we prevent ourselves from feeling it; judgment (either positive or negative) is a prophylactic to the very process that is necessary for turning the most painful emotions into the states of human being—gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, love, and joy—that the holidays, after all, are meant to ritualize and cultivate. 

In other words, difficult emotions are not anathema to thriving; resisting them is. Survival-mind tells us stories about our emotions that can make us feel inept and out of place during the holidays, or overwhelmed and stressed to the max. Either way, we're not thriving because we're not present to the truth of our own experience. And when we're not present to our own truth, it's pretty hard to be truly present to others, which is why anticipation of the holiday is often more satisfying than the actual day itself. 

How, then can we move from survival-mindset to thriving-mindset? 

It's easier than you might think! Here are five steps you can take right now, and over the course of the next few days, that will shift you from surviving to thriving. I do these myself, and teach my kids to as well. I promise you, they work!

1. Value Inventory: Take ten minutes, even if in the car en route to the grocery store, to ask yourself the following: What do I want to value most this holiday? Be very specific. Is it connecting with a particular person? (rather than simply "connecting with people"). Is there someone you'd like to listen to in particular this holiday? Someone who's time and energy you want to hone in on? Is it sharing a particular ritual with your children, or introducing them to a new family tradition? When you have a moment, write down the three things that you are choosing to value and prioritize this holiday. Be deliberate. 

2. Body Inventory: Are you moving so fast that you've forgotten to enjoy the sensual pleasures of the holidays? No matter how busy you are, you can pause over the dish you are cooking, close your eyes, and smell the goodness. Notice the different layers. No matter how busy you are, you can pause to listen--to hear the music playing at the store, the laughs of the kid in the next aisle, the water in the sink. Even mundane sounds like the dishwasher or the furnace coming to life can become sources of joy if we allow ourselves to notice them with full attention. Take time throughout the day to come home to your senses. Sights, smells, sounds, textures, tastes. Savor your food---fill your plate on purpose with less, so that you can linger over it more. Be sure to step outside for no other purpose than to feel the air on your face. Each time you come home to your body in these simple ways you practice radical presence, and joy. 

3. Emotion Inventory: How are you feeling right now? Take a few minutes to honestly put a name to your emotions. Be particularly mindful of victim mentality: where are you feeling burdened, resentful, or blaming? Maybe you feel like your partner isn't pulling his or her weight. Maybe you're resentful of the couples around you because you are singe. Identify any negative emotion of this sort and accept yourself for it. Love the part of yourself that feels run down, stressed out, or lonely. Allow those emotions onto center-stage and simply accept them for what they are, without any effort to fix them or react to them or act upon them. Just witness their presence, and breathe into them. Feel the emotions as sensations in your body for ten consecutive seconds: hot, cold, tight, numb, restless, agitated, tingly, heavy, lethargic, etc. Observe, with curiosity, your emotion as sensation. Watch what happens as you simply practice presence to your negative emotion in this way.

4. Thought Inventory: Whenever you're feeling anxious or stressed-out or sad, ask yourself these questions: What is the thought that is running through my head? What is the thought I'm choosing to believe? Notice, with curiosity. Ask yourself: How do I feel when I believe this thought? Does it serve me? Listen to your own wisdom. We can't control other people's actions or reactions, but we can control our own thoughts. Decide, on purpose, to think thoughts that serve you. This isn't "letting him/her off the hook," or being a Pollyanna: it's managing your mind and taking responsibility for your emotions. Decide how you want to feel, and then decide what thoughts you will choose to think in order to create that feeling. 

5. Spiritual Inventory: Finally, how would you like to show gratitude this holiday? Again, be specific: what will this look like for you? How will you make time and space for your own spiritual practice of thanksgiving? How might you think of your cooking as a gesture of gratitude? How might you think of setting your table as a gesture of love? How might you think of taking time for yourself, alone--a walk, a bath, a meditation--as a gesture of thanks and communion with the god of your understanding? How would you like to be present to a particular person whom you know is struggling? Take a moment to write down three ways in which you will show deliberate, focused, gratitude by giving

The greatest form of love is attention--loving, kind, curious attention. Surviving-mind wants you to chase and distract and react and retract. Thriving-mind wants you to accept, to choose, to respond, and to open. To thrive is to grow in our capacity to exhale into this moment, now

I hope these thoughts and practices are useful to you this holiday season, and as always, if you like what you read here, please share it with a friend or family member: we spread love and make change one connection at a time. 

I'm wishing you the very best this holiday, which is to say, an experience of heightened presence to yourself and to those you care about, whether they be near or far. 

So much love to you! And many thanks, much gratitude, to you for being part of this community and our collective commitment to thriving. 




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