December is a month of intense psychological ambivalence. On one hand, there’s a lot to love about songs and sweets, parties and presents. On the other hand, the holidays present us with a host of stressors. I’m not just talking about vague malaise. This season forces our brains to face challenges that, at any time of year, can push them into confusion, anxiety, even panic.
Understanding what our brains undergo during this month can help us deal with the season more easily. So here’s some information that may help you weather the hurricane of mental pressures you’ll almost certainly encounter during the next few weeks.
What December does to our brains
The holidays create all sorts of situations that would mess up our brains at the best of times. Consider “decision fatigue,” a brain state that occurs when we have to make many decisions in a short time. After a few hours we develop a particular type of exhaustion, which renders us unable to feel confident in our choices, or even think through our options. This isn’t a character defect, and we can’t overcome it with willpower. It’s simply what happens to the human brain when we’re confronted with an overwhelming number of choices. Which gift to buy? How many cards to send? What to wear to the party? The decisions around the holiday are supposed to fill us with good cheer, but instead, they drive almost all of us to decision fatigue.
If you go into a shopping center this December, you’ll be flirting with another difficult brain state. This one is called the “Gruen Transfer,” after Victor Gruen, the German shopping-mall architect who discovered it. Stores and shops—especially during the holidays—bombard our senses with all sorts of stimulation: flashing lights, huge and complex displays, clamorous music. All of these put our brains into a kind of hypnotic state in which we become confused, forgetful, and weak-willed. Once the Gruen Transfer kicks in (and marketers do everything they can to ensure that it does) we’re more likely to dawdle, wander, and make impulse purchases.
As we stagger dazedly through the mall trying to make decisions, we’re further burdened by the many faces of social anxiety, which rise to their apex at this time of year. Almost everyone has a touch of social anxiety, especially when many people gather to exchange gifts and good wishes. We worry about how others will judge our clothes, our bantering skills, our choice of gifts, our net worth, our relationships—you name it, the holidays put a hard bright social focus on it.
An offshoot of social anxiety is “social comparison theory.” Psychologists have found that we determine our self-esteem and sense of value by evaluating how we stack up against others. Internal comparisons go ballistic during the holidays. We’re supposed to be in happy relationships, raising perfect children, enjoying all the romance and success we see in every holiday-themed advertisement or rom-com. I can count on one hand the Decembers when my life looked the way I thought it was “supposed to,” and during those holidays I was actually hiding a toxic brew of subterranean unhappiness. I only managed to match the “perfect holiday” stereotype on the outside by sacrificing my inner life..
This is by no means an exhaustive list of psychological triggers we encounter during the holidays. But just add these few together and you have a recipe for a mental hurricane. As you decorate the tree or spin the dreidel, your brain is whirling so violently that cows and motorhomes go hurtling past. It’s overwhelming at best. At worst, it can suck you into a savage vortex of self-loathing and despair.
Culture versus nature
What’s the solution to all this madness? I find it in the distinction between our true nature and our surrounding culture. Cultural pressures max out at the holidays, pulling us away from natural inclinations. Nature itself can put us back on track.
If you live in northern climes, where this is a relatively cold, dark time of year, don’t avoid the supposedly “bad” weather. Right now I’m looking out my window at a gray, still scene: trees stripped of leaves, birds and small animals puffed up and cuddled together, sharing body heat. It reminds me that trees sense light—that is, see—with their leaves. When the leaves are gone, the tree has closed its eyes. A winter forest isn’t dead or frozen; it’s asleep. The animals, too, are preserving their energy, banding together, and even hibernating. Culture says this is the time for the hustle bustle of celebration, but nature says, “Hush, now. Be still. There will be time for that later.”
How to break free, step one: Just notice
To follow our own nature at this time, it helps to notice our brains going into the various kinds of predictable psychological distress I’ve just described.
We may see ourselves battered by decision fatigue: Which gift should I buy? How many cards shall I send? Should I go to the duty party or the fun party?
We may notice that we’ve been numbed by the Gruen transfer: Where’s my car? Why did I buy this rubber chicken? Why did I go back for two more?
We may feel the vertiginous dread of social anxiety: Is this the right outfit? How do I talk to all those new people? What if I end up drunk and naked like last year?
Or we may find ourselves stinging with shame from endless comparisons: Why aren’t my children as successful as hers? Why am I still single, when everyone else has somebody? How can I hold my head up when I’m so much poorer than they are?
How to break free, step two: Disconnect from culture, connect with nature
Instead of avoiding the cold or the dark, address the holiday hurricane by breaking free from culture and taking a few minutes in nature. Go out in the early dark and stand among the sleeping trees. Watch your breath freeze into mist. Let yourself shiver in the cold without struggling—you can handle it for a few minutes. Breathe deeply, and feel your whole nervous system resetting itself to nature’s rhythm.
How to break free, step three: Prioritize rest
Once you’ve briefly escaped the various pressures that cause holiday brain, you’ll notice that this is a season of rest. If you’re spending time paralyzed by fear or indecision, replace that with a nap, or meditation. Cuddle with loved ones—other humans, pets, a favorite book. Be still, not because you’re dazed into immobility, but because you’re allowing yourself to relax. The time spent doing nothing will be the same, but you’ll be restored, not depleted.
A new holiday paradigm
December madness is so ubiquitous and intense that we’ll all probably get caught up in it this year. That’s okay. An occasional storm is refreshing and exciting, but not if we can’t take shelter when we’re tired of it. Knowing that our brains are susceptible to multiple holiday triggers, and knowing how to detach from them, can help give us power over the chaos.
Turning back to natural rhythms at a time of peak cultural pressure deepens that power and plugs us into the vast, quiet forces that shape us. Instead of the hyper-stimulating melee of human activity, we can ground ourselves in stillness, in rest, in love. Instead of harried, anxious little creatures, we can become the very embodiment of peace on earth.