Finding Peace and Joy

Relieving stress and finding meaning in the holiday season.

When artist Kathryn Coneway is feeling overwhelmed by the stress of the holiday season, she heads outside to find peace and calm in nature.

“I get easily overwhelmed by the crowded parking lots and busy stores,” she said. “When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll go to Huntley Meadows Park and walk around. The beauty of nature restores me. You’re with other people when you’re there, but there’s still solitude.”

From those who are dashing to finish holiday shopping and those who are financially strapped to those grieving a loss or dreading dealing with strained familial relationships, the stretch of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is often hectic and emotionally charged. Recharging and infusing the holidays with joy and peace might mean redefining the holiday season.

“Research shows increased happiness after thinking of three good things that happened to you today and what caused them,” said Jerome Short, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at George Mason University. “Also, people report improved mood from doing five kind acts in a day, expressing gratitude, pursuing important goals, and playing sports.”

An evening of music and quiet creativity is one method that Elizabeth Rees, associate rector at Saint Aidan's Episcopal Church in Alexandria uses to recharge during the holiday season. The event called “Healing Arts” is held at the Center for Spiritual Deepening at St. Aidan’s. “Sometimes for me, meditative art helps me to get into a different space,” she said. “And with instrumental cello and guitar music in the background, it [is] beautiful.”

Visual imagery is another technique Rees employs. “I went to a… prayer-yoga-dance gathering this week, and [the instructor] had us physically pretend to pick up things that we want to let go of or that are weighing us down to place on an imaginary fire,” she said. “I loved the imagery: my burdens and distractions going up in smoke along with my prayers rising to God to make space in me for something new.”

Coneway uses the season’s natural surrounding to inspire her art, which is another way in which she finds joy and relaxation. “The gift of this time of day is the display of light and colors of early morning and evening,” she said. “I encourage families to gather around the table and [create] art together. Whether its parents addressing Christmas cards while children are drawing or making a collage out of wrapping paper or tissue paper, I encourage families to work on something together.”

Serving others and expressing gratitude are research-driven techniques for finding happiness, says Dr. Lois T. Stover, Ed.D., dean, School of Education and Human Services at Marymount University.

“Make holiday cards and send them out. It's fun to drop a word of kindness anonymously to someone in the neighborhood and then tell that person to pass along the idea, leaving words of kindness or gratitude themselves for someone else,” she said. “Create an ‘I am thankful for ...’ wall and cover it with sticky notes that complete the sentence as new thoughts come to mind each time you pass by.”

There’s plenty of holiday joy that comes without a price tag, suggests Stover. “Drive through various neighborhoods just after dark and exclaim ‘Oooh – aah’ over homes or other buildings that have particularly fun or beautiful displays of lights,” said Stover. “Listen to holiday music in a variety of genres and make play lists of favorites. Sing along loudly. It's hard to feel down while belting out anything from ‘Frosty the Snowman’ to ‘Joy to the World.’"

For those looking to maintain the religious meaning of the season, Rees suggests daily devotions sent electronically. “I’ve found some wonderful daily prayers that arrive each day by email. Just a minute or two of focus on what is deep and joyful and holy help center me for the day,” she said. “For me, Ignatian prayer has been speaking to me lately, imagining myself into the stories of scripture. Moments of quiet and rest and being able to be present in the moment help me to get through the frenzy.”

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