How to slow down your frantic, overwhelming holiday season

Stacking. Dysregulation. Stress. Recentering. Visions. Armor. A lot has happened since Thanksgiving.


My family spent a glorious Thanksgiving weekend in the woods along the Kalamath River with several of our bubble pod mates. No internet. No cell service. Just games, food, walks, books and naps. It was so restful and restorative. But of course reality hit as soon as we got back home. Have you ever accelerated from zero to a hundred miles per hour? Did you return from a wonderful vacation just in time to rocket launch into reality with “Oh sh#%t! I’ve got so much to do.” Yeah. Me too. Every time.


I immediately jumped into GO mode. Christmas prep. Meet clients. Homeschool kids. Launch a new online course. Worry about a sick loved one. Attend a 5-day, all day, East coast time training on Zoom. Pack for a work trip to Southern California. Prep a conference presentation (the reason I was going to Southern California). Family obligations. Everyday house stuff like dishes and laundry. The list went on and on.


I stacked my schedule way too high and deep. Is it any surprise that 24 hours before leaving for my Southern California trip, I was completely dysregulated – frantic, crying, picking fights with Jason, and generally a hot mess.


Yes, that was me bulldozing my way over my husband’s well-intentioned input. When I’m in GO mode, my mind gets laser focused on whatever it thinks is the fastest way to get out of stress-land. Sorry pal.


Yes, that was me on a 10 minute Zoom break, tearing around the house like a hurricane looking for my phone so I could make a 9 minute phone call. I spent my entire break rushing around the house, getting the kids and Jason swept up in my tornado of frantic energy. Defeated, I sat down at my desk to resume the Zoom training, look to the left, and see my phone, right where I’d put it an hour ago.


Yes, me. Yours truly, the manage-your-energy-not-your-time guru spun herself out.


Fortunately, one of the things I had stacked up on my plate was a Center for Mind Body Medicine certification training. (That was the all day on Zoom training. And hooray! I’m now fully certified as a Mind Body Medicine practitioner!) Those self-healing and de-stressing tools were right in front of me to utilize.


Let me share the tools I used to get out of stress-land. If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed this holiday season, perhaps they might help you too.


Step 1: Get out of stress land

When dysregulated, your number one priority is to gently and intentionally bring your brain and body back to a place of safety, calm, and peace. Don’t try to think. Don’t look for your phone. Push pause and recenter.


A brain on stress is laser focused on fight, flight or freeze. Every neuron will be focused on the stressor and what to do about it right now. Your brain will not be accessing it’s executive function centers, those brain areas used for creative problem solving, big picture thinking, careful decision making, and memory retrieval. A stressed brain can only see the stressor immediately in front of it, and will cling desperately to the first solution it can think of to fight, flee, or hide from that stressor. All physical resources will be directed towards that first immediate solution.


For me, the stressor was that there was clearly not enough time to do all the things I had stacked up. My desperate solution was seeking maximal productivity, aka GO mode. A solution destined to fail even before I started. That’s why I couldn’t hear my husband’s input. Poor guy, he was taking something off my plate. But oh no. My brain was geared up to fight anyone that might derail me from my (poorly conceived) path out of stress-land. Similarly, that’s why I couldn’t find my phone. My brain’s resources were fully directed towards “I have just 10 minutes to make a phone call” and unable to access my memory centers to recall where I’d put my phone in the first place.


So here’s two of my favorite ways to get out of stress land. These were the two ways my Center for Mind Body Medicine training handed me on a silver platter that awful dysregulated morning. (See this blog post for more brain break ideas.)


  • Breathe - Take at least five big, deep, long, slow breaths. Notice your breath, going in and out of the body. Notice your chest rising and falling. Notice your belly, rising and falling. With each out breath, let gravity drain any tension from your face, from your shoulders, from your back, from your stomach. If your mind wanders (which it will), gently and kindly shepherd it back to your breath. Breathe in calm. Breathe away stress. What you are doing is using your body and breath to tell your mind that you are safe. There’s no immediate threat to life or limb. Just. Breathe.

  • Shake - Sometimes, the way out of stress land is to move. Let your muscles have the experience of fight or flight, without actually fighting or fleeing. Begin by planting your feet shoulder-width apart, bending your knees slightly, relaxing your shoulders and breathing deeply. Then shake your whole body from your feet, through your knees, hips and shoulders, to your head. Imagine a dog shaking itself off after a bath. If possible, let yourself shake for a full two to three minutes in whatever way feels right for your body. Safety tip: If you have physical limitations, shake to the best of your ability. You may need to shake slowly or while sitting down. You may need to be gentle with your shoulder or knee. Listen to your body.


Step 2: Triage

Once you are out of stress brain, and once your executive brain is back online, triage. That’s what hospitals and emergency rooms do when there’s a flood of patients all at the same time. They make a quick assessment of what’s going on with each patient that rolls through those double doors and determine how beneficial immediate treatment is likely to be for that patient: code red (immediate), code yellow (urgent), code green (can wait), code white (no intervention needed, it’ll resolve on its own), code black (beyond help, let it go).


How ironic that the online course I was launching and the conference talk I was preparing were on streamlining your workflow. Once I was centered and back in my executive brain (versus stress brain) I could use my own triage tools to get back in control. My brain feels so much better after putting all the swirling thoughts and emotions into buckets with color coded labels that I can approach one by one, in order of priority. Thank goodness I’m not an ER doc having to make life or death triage decisions. My decisions were simply ways to better manage my energy, not my time.


Sort through what’s coming at you thought by thought, emotion by emotion. First, is it code red, yellow, green, white or black? Make an honest appraisal of what is actually important versus what is just flotsom caught up in the whirlwind.


Next, is it a mind, body, or soul thing? That will help you determine what to do with it.

  • Start with body things. These are physical needs like being hungry, tired, or cold, but also include more abstract bodily needs like the need to move and exercise, or the need for physical and emotional safety. If it’s a body thing, take care of those bodily needs right away. Eat. Drink. Nap. Get a blanket. Move. Don’t put it off. It’ll only get worse.

  • Soul things are emotions and anything that impacts one’s identity, core values, passion, or purpose. Take care of soul things next by noticing and accepting them. Don’t suppress it. In one of my favorite TED talks of all time, Susan David says, “When emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification. Like that delicious chocolate cake in the refrigerator -- the more you try to ignore it the greater its hold on you… Research now shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions -- even the messy, difficult ones -- is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happiness.” So if it’s a soul thing, name it. Notice it. Acknowledge it.

  • Mind things are thoughts and ideas. Use the 5Ds to sort those into Dump, Delegate, Date, re-Define, or Do. (See the attached worksheet to 5D your to do list.)


For example, these are four of the things that were swirling right before my trip and what I did to triage each:

  • Frantic → body = I’m in flight mode → breathe, shake

  • Fight with Jason → soul = guilt and sadness → name, notice, acknowledge & set time to reconcile

  • Release course & prep conference → mind = let go of perfection → DO part, DATE other part

  • Christmas → mind = let go of “shoulds” → re-DEFINE


Step 3: Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

I love this phrase: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” Its origins are from military training where combat forces are taught to slow down. Breathe. Triage. Plan. Move with careful purpose and intention. Let this Simon and Garfunkel song float in your head. “Slow down. You move too fast. Gotta make the morning last.”


Instead of rushing out the door, I took my time. I spent a lazy morning reconciling with Jason and spending time with the kids. Sure, I got into my AirBnB after dark, but by slowing down, things were smooth.


Same with moving my way through the conference, the final days of mind body medicine certification, and my presentation. I gave myself an entire hour before my presentation to center and prep. Afterwards, I lingered over dinner to reconnect with conference friends I care about. I let the morning time drop all its petals on me. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.


Step 4: Address the root cause

Finally, the whirlwind of activity was over and I could take a day for myself. I met one on one with my amazing coach, Jay Fields, who sent me out into the Southern California desert on a medicine walk. The goal was simple but profound – a wilderness rite of passage through which I might address the root causes of GO mode. You’ll have to wait for another blog post sometime soon describing the utterly magical, transformative experience that awaited me in the desert.


The short story is this. As Susan David says: “The most agile, resilient individuals, teams, organizations, families, communities are built on an openness to the normal human emotions.” Jay sent me into the desert to find my anger, an emotion I’ve hidden and suppressed since childhood. Find it, I did. But moreover, I found access to the squishy, gooey, vulnerable part of me. Since I was a child, I used productivity, perfectionism, and hyper-achiever-ism as armor to defend and protect the squishy, vulnerable little Irene from harm.


My eyes are open. Anger, I see you now. Welcome home.


Read More


I can’t recommend Susan David’s TED talk enough. And if you love that, consider reading her book Emotional Agility.


Actually, better yet, get Brene Brown's new book, Atlas of the Heart. She says, "Language is our portal to meaning making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness. Having access to the right words can open up entire universes." Her book offers a clear map to finding the words for eighty seven emotions and experiences that are most essential to being able to process them in a healing, productive way.


And this isn’t something to read, but if holiday music is annoying the heck out of you, consider replacing Jingle Bells with the 59th Street Bridge Song. “Slow down. You move too fast.” The perfect catchy earworm to put a little calm into the holiday season.


Going Further


Online leadership survival skills and advanced training course: If you are looking for research-backed strategies to avoid burnout, create healthy balance, build stress resilience, increase productivity, and grow skills in conflict resolution and difficult workplace conversations, then join my new online course, Leadership Boot Camp! The course will be offered via short 20 minute videos delivered to your inbox every Monday from January to June 2022. There’ll be a live monthly hand-on practice session, discussion forums, and other support. Best of all, the first two months of foundational leadership skills will be completely FREE!


Facilitated mastermind group: Leadership can be really lonely, especially if you want have a big dream to realize or a big challenge to overcome. Wishes and challenges are so much easier to tackle with a deep, authentic, supportive, empowering team at your back. If that’s what you are looking for I’m offering a facilitated mastermind group called Synergy. You'll be joining a small group of visionary leaders who want 2022 to be transformative. Apply ASAP. We begin in January.


Retreats in 2022: Does a wilderness rite of passage sound fascinating to you? Sad that you missed out on last year’s women’s leadership retreat in Mendocino? Executive coach Tutti Taygerly and I have booked the glamping resort Mendocino Grove over Memorial Day weekend for a reprise of the Heroine’s Journey Women’s Leadership Retreat. AND I’m contemplating inviting my own mentor, Jay Fields, up to Shasta County California to lead a medicine walk retreat for me and my tribe. If either of these retreats are of interest to you, shoot me an email at irene@irenesalter.com and I’ll put you on the waiting list.


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