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How to be kind to your brain at Christmas

With Christmas only a few hectic days away, NeuroCapability Founder and CEO, Linda Ray, shares some great tips for not only surviving this stressful time of year but actually enjoying that time with friends and family and getting energised for a great start to 2020.

Taking a break over Christmas and New Year all sounds good in theory — spend some time with family, enjoy the company of friends, open a few presents, plenty of great food, some entertainment, a few extra treats, and maybe even a few celebratory drinks. But that’s only the bright side of the coin. All that food, family gatherings, gift-buying, entertaining, and time off has to be planned and organised. So the lead-up to Christmas day can be especially draining. Negotiating busy shopping centres and grocery stores in the week before Christmas can be particularly stressful. Then there’s the pressure of a full house with family visiting, kids on school holidays, and friends “paying a visit”. And there always seems to be a lot of extra work that has to be done in the final weeks just we can take the time off.

But knowing the challenges are before us (and how taxing they can be on our poor old brain) gives us an opportunity to prepare.

Here’s 10 ways to survive Christmas and keep a healthy brain in the process:

1. Make a list. Before you go to the shops, write down what you need so you aren’t constantly thinking and worrying about things you have forgotten to buy. If you put the items in order of priority or even make two lists — urgent and non-urgent — you give yourself an escape clause if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.

2. Find moments of mindfulness. In this age of information overwhelm and constant distraction, it is easy to be “mindless”. Research on benefits of mindfulness show improvements can be made with concentration, cognitive capacity, health, and wellbeing. Just five minutes a day has resulted in measurable benefits. But remember: Mindfulness isn’t about trying to “tune-out”. According to Dr Craig Hassad, it’s about ‘tuning-in’.

3. Get back to nature. Research shows that putting yourself in natural environments can improve your mood easily and immediately. Personally, I like to spend some time at the beach or go bushwalking. You can plan some time with nature as part of your “Holiday Rejuvenation” strategy for the break and then continue the plan into the new year.

4. Don’t get caught in the trap of future self-predicting. Believe it or not, your future self is just as busy as your present self so don’t assume you will have more time later. When you’re thinking about doing something in the future, imagine yourself doing it now. For example, if you are promising to help a friend move house at some future time, imagine it is happening this weekend. Do you have the resources to do it now? If not, chances are those resources aren’t available to your future self either. Think hard before burdening your future self with extra demands.

5. Avoid the fight to be right. Conversations around politics, religion or other divisive subjects can turn nasty and stress levels go through the roof. If you have a couple of topic changers on standby, you can save some angst. If you can agree to disagree, it’s a great outcome. But it can be hard because, biologically, we have a need to be right. The question is whether being right is worth it, given we can’t “change” other people. Remind yourself that we can change the way we deal with things ourselves.

6. Switch off devices. Come on you need a break! Turn on your out-of-office notice and resist the temptation to keep checking in. We know that blue light interferes with our sleep so don’t take your device to bed with you. If you have to check emails, limit yourself to pre-set times.

7. Positively prime your brain. Priming yourself with the idea that things will be awful only tells your brain where to focus your attention – on things that will make it awful. Confirmation bias kicks in when you look for things to confirm your dire prediction. Avoid saying things like “I’m not looking forward to having all these guests at Christmas” because this can easily become an instruction for the brain to make it a bad experience.

8. Enjoy time with yourself. Research tells us people are uncomfortable being alone and this can be for as little as six minutes. But the time you are alone and free from your digital devices is when you might have your best ideas. Real insights often come when we are least expecting them!

9. Create certainty. The brain is a prediction organ so try to let people know the plan beforehand. Let them know when the meal will start, what the plan is for opening presents, and what people need to bring. This will create a calmer atmosphere all-round.

10. Remember to breathe! When things don’t go as planned, you can feel stressed and panic can set in. Take a deep breath (several if it is a big panic). Breathing changes your state of mind and calms you down in the moment. When we feel stressed, we tend to hold our breath or our breathing becomes very shallow. Remember to breathe deeply and exhale fully.

Have a merry brain-friendly Christmas everyone!

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