Your Brain on the Holidays

Your Brain on the Holidays, a down-to-earth guide to living in the stars

Make the Holidays a positive time for you and your kids by understanding your brain reactions.

Some of us intrinsically love the holidays and all the busyness, noise and excitement that comes with them.

Others may just wish we could skip the hoopla and have a quiet night to ourselves.

But most of us enjoy at least some pieces of the holiday pie. Maybe we enjoy getting together with extended family, a special dish, or the music.

What creates both the resistance and the love, for the holiday season?

First, let’s talk about dopamine. Dopamine causes much of the love of the holiday season. Sugar gives you a dopamine rush. Giving gifts gives you a dopamine rush. Spending time with family and friends you don’t often see gives you a dopamine rush. Because all these things are pleasurable. The thing is, dopamine is a necessary and important part of our daily lives. We need it. So we get a little extra during the holidays, which makes us feel the ‘cheer’ of the holiday season.

Finding the balance between dopamine and downtime can be difficult.

When dopamine is connected with survival, such as when eating, there is a lessening of reward (or dopamine release) as we meet our survival need.

When we refer to dopamine and addiction, this natural satiation is not met, often because the source of the dopamine hit has nothing to do with survival.

This is often the case with artificial substances like sugar, but may also be at play with things like social media addiction. We never feel satisfied because social media and sugar are not actually what we need, so our body never down-regulates the dopamine dose.

Getting real for the holiday season

It is helpful to focus on ‘real’ things during the holidays to avoid overdosing ourselves on dopamine and then facing a big ‘end of happiness’ come January 2nd. By real, I mean, real food, real relationships, real-time together.

Not just sitting in the room while everyone plays their own phone game, but having conversations, reading books together, playing games together, everyone watching the same movie at the same time, etc. Real music, as in sing together or go to a concert together. Real stuff feeds us.

When we focus on real things, it satisfies us. Our body and mind stop screaming and demanding more dopamine hits because our needs have been met.

Let’s feed ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally this Holiday season.

What about the introverts?

Can we enjoy the holiday season also? Even though it requires more social time, both of a casual nature, such as neighborhood parties and more intimate, more time at home with our family, we can embrace the opportunity to work on connecting with others that the holidays provide.

We need to acknowledge that we are going to get some extra socializing done in the next month and embrace it. We can also make the time to carve out a little downtime when we can, but it is okay if we don’t get as much of this as we would like for a month. There will be plenty coming in January 🙂

Just as extroverts sometimes need to practice spending time alone in quiet and reflection, we need to sometimes just practice being with people and making those connections.

Simple and special go together like bread and butter

Sometimes we get caught up in complicated ideas. We think extravagant trimmings make the holidays special. But the specialness of the holidays is in the simple repetition. Christmas trees make us feel good because happy memories are connected with that tree. Not because the tree was hard to put together, or we had to spend hours getting the tinsel on just right. You can skip the things that make the holidays hard. It won’t make the holidays less special.

Traditions don’t need to be complicated, it is often the most simple things, repeated every year, and shared together as a family that bring us the most joy.

Trying to make everything perfect leads to holiday resistance

We set ourselves up to do more than is possible, then fail, rinse, repeat, and the holidays start to remind us of all that we aren’t.

It might be tempting to throw a Martha Stewart Christmas party, but it might be more enjoyable to just invite your friends over on the 29th for a holiday leftovers potluck. It might be simple, easy, and the start of a tradition everyone will want to repeat.

Don’t commit to things that are going to push you over the edge, from enjoyment to overwhelm. You are going to be busy, but you can decide what you are going to be busy doing. Will you choose to be busy reading The Christmas Carol or watching the Nutcracker with your kids, or will you be busy nitpicking the tinsel on the tree? Time is a limited resource and few of us are so blessed with it that we have time to do everything.

Choose wisely. Then savor the activities you have chosen. Let go of the rest.

Another cause of holiday resistance is decision fatigue

In our already busy lives, where are we to find the mental energy and space for all these extra decisions?

Use traditions to help you manage the decision fatigue of the holidays. There are a lot of extra decisions around the holidays. What to buy for who? Which party on the 15th of December is more important to attend? How much do you have to spend? What do you say to everyone drilling you for gift ideas?

The dreaded question, “What do you want for Christmas?”

Putting some things on autopilot can save us a lot of mental energy. Traditions are autopilot. Every Christmas Eve we fondue. We have a very similar and fairly simple Christmas dinner every year. This saves us from more decisions.

I am not saying you can’t change things up when needed, or that you have to be a slave to how things have always been. You can decide what you want your traditions to be. Sticking to them year after year will create fond memories and give you the freedom to focus on the other hundred decisions you can’t avoid making this holiday season.

This Holiday season let’s focus on feeding our brain the good stuff, enjoy the extra dose of dopamine, and make sure you aren’t substituting what you really need with fake fillers.

P.S. Your brain needs food, oxygen (gained through moving), learning, and loving.

Happy Everything!

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