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How practicing mindfulness can help reduce stress during the holiday season

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Schmooke says that while the term 'mindfulness' can conjure images of intense meditation or intimidating yoga, it's actually an accessible concept that doesn't have to look a certain way.

For the most wonderful time of the year, the holidays can be stressful. End of year deadlines at work combined with long to-do lists at home can get overwhelming, especially for those who are involved in making the magic happen. Plus, togetherness can bring its own share of challenges, especially in the current political environment.

Becky Schmooke is the owner of Becky's Mindful Kitchen in Solon, where she teaches mindful cooking classes. Schmooke says that while the term 'mindfulness' can conjure images of intense meditation or intimidating yoga, it's actually an accessible concept that doesn't have to look a certain way.

"I saw cooking as a way to teach mindfulness. When I have kids in my kitchen, and they make a mistake, I don't let them start over again," says Schmooke. "And it's not just because I'm really cheap, though I don't want to waste like ingredients...I'm like, 'Okay, this is what we've got now. How do we solve this? How do we make this mistake work for us? What can we create now?'...the creating is also teaching people a fact."

Schmooke joined host Charity Nebbe on Talk of Iowa and offered advice on how Iowans can practice mindfulness during holiday preparations and celebrations, and she explained how it can make for a more enjoyable holiday.

Editor's note: The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Give others — and yourself — grace

"One of my holiday tips comes across not as very mindful or probably very kind, but I tell people 'you are not that special,'" says Schmooke. "The world does not revolve around you, and no one is conspiring against you."

“When you're shopping at a store and the cashier is rude to you, and your initial response is to be like, 'Oh my god, what the heck?’ Like, why are you being so rude to me?'" That’s an example of taking something personally and making it about yourself, Schmooke says. “If you're able to be mindful enough to take a pause and think to yourself, 'I have no idea who this person is, what their story is, what just happened in their life.' Just give compassion to that person.”

And, Schmooke says, it's equally important to extend that compassion to yourself. "When you make a mistake, and you get home and you realize, 'Oh my god, I forgot what I went to the store for,' that's okay. We make mistakes. Mindfulness is simply giving yourself grace, giving others grace and recognizing that there's usually more to the story."

Rather than assuming positive intent, Schmooke says to work on not assuming intent, period. "So often we forget, things just happen."

Manage expectations

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We can change some things in life, Schmooke says, but we can't change as much as we feel.

"Stoic philosophy is my foundation," says Schmooke, who is an expressive and gregarious person. "That's stoic with a little 's,' versus Stoic with a big 'S,'" she adds. "What's important is to recognize (stoics) really focus on that dichotomy of control, what's in your control and what is not." We can change some things in life, she says, but we can't change as much as we feel.

Part of the reason that holidays can be anxiety-inducing is because we may have an idea of what they should be like in our head, and that idea isn't always flexible or realistic. "When I have expectations, I have to think what, first of all, is in my control? And then also think, what are all the things that could go wrong that would impact those expectations?"

This is also true when navigating traditions. Just because something has been done a certain way doesn't mean it must be in the future. "Some traditions, I feel like, are the equivalent of the parents yelling at their kids at Disneyland, like, 'You will have fun!'" says Schmooke. "If the tradition has become a chore, you are doing it a disservice."

"It's okay to alter traditions. You can talk about traditions and decide what to adjust, especially if you're starting a family and you're a young new family and you have two partners who have traditions — you can't bring them all in. It just doesn't work that way, there isn't enough time. So really being mindful of looking for what fits in, how how can we alter it?"

NPR's Life Kit also offers advice on navigating traditions, especially food-related ones. In short: comparison is a killer. "Throw your expectations out the window," says Noor Wazwaz. "Do NOT expect that your dish will be the same as the one you grew up eating, and don't even try comparing!"

"I think the best piece of advice about traditions I can give is to look at the meaning of that tradition," says Schmooke. "What is the value that it brings to you, and the actual actions themselves may not be what fits. But find a way to carry forth that feeling that you got from that tradition in a way that works for your family. We change. The world is not the same as it was, even a week ago."

Cultivate and live in positive emotions

Another tenant of small-'s' stoicism is working to "live in positive emotions."

"A lot of it is recognizing that if something is outside of your control, spending time moaning and complaining about it does you zero good," Schmooke says. "Here's an example, going into this holiday season — your flight gets canceled because of bad weather. You can't control the fact that your flight got canceled, but you can certainly control how you respond to that. You can choose to not waste the time complaining about it. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to be upset, but don’t spend time there."

Schmooke says another helpful tenant of stoicism is to "look at obstacles as opportunities."

Stoic Marcus Aurelius said that "what stands in the way, becomes the way. The impediment to action advances action." The obstacles we encounter are opportunities to try something new and grow as people. A recipe mistake could turn into something even more delicious. Supply chain issues may mean extending the celebration over a few days, and learning to celebrate Christmas morning without all the presents under the tree.

Be curious, not judgmental

"Be curious, not judgmental. As you head into this holiday season, when you encounter sometimes difficult people in your life, people that you might have disagreements with, that's something you try to carry with you."

"A key to (respectful discourse) is being curious. I can sit across the table from someone who would vote differently on every topic from me. I mean, you would not think that we have anything in common, and yet I can stay curious and find out some fascinating piece(s) of information. So if you're at the holiday table and you're with your great Uncle Ed who makes you want to scream, ask him what his favorite toy was at the age of 10. Ask him about his favorite Christmas gift. Ask him questions that have nothing to do about those topics."

Sometimes it's impossible to avoid certain conversations or ignore remarks. This advice on speaking with individuals who are reluctant to get vaccinated can apply to other situations.

And, circling back to the relationship between food and mindfulness, Wazwaz writes that food is about "memories and stories and emotions. Family recipes make all that accessible every time we cook. You can use cooking as an opportunity to unlock some memories. Maybe you come from a culture that doesn't talk about feelings or a family that's bad at communicating. Cooking can be the perfect — and convenient — excuse to talk about these things."

For other tips on mindfulness and handling stress during the holidays, check out these resources:

And you can listen to the full conversation with Schmooke here.

Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa