When we dream about summer vacation, we imagine the good stuff: Warm days, cool breezes, with lots of laughter and good vibes. And time off is definitely good for our health, yet it's not always smooth sailing.
The divide between our expectations and 'reality' can create dust-ups, especially when unpredictable circumstances and temperamental personalities collide to throw us off course.
Maybe the kayak outing is disrupted by storms, or perhaps, mealtime turns chaotic with differing preferences or lack of cooperation. With big groups or families, this may be par for the course. On my recent week off, we had five consecutive days of stormy weather, my husband got strep throat and we had an ER visit due to a health scare with my dad. He's fine, thankfully, but it's not what I'd anticipated, and I found myself feeling a little jangly.
"Vacations and holidays are challenging, says Dr. Michael Irwin, of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. "I have firsthand knowledge," as do many of us, he says. Whether it's tension over where to go, what to do, or who's cooking – personalities and agendas can collide to create strife.
"Mindfulness has helped incredibly," Irwin says about his own personal experiences. You can start the day with certain expectations, but when it doesn't go your way, "it's like, oh, well, this is what's happening, and ok, I'll give up my expectations," he says.
"A meditation practice brings you back to being aware in the moment," Irwin explains. When someone ticks you off or says something off-kilter, "instead of responding in a reactive way, it can allow you to go with the flow, which is just being present to what is happening all around you," he says.
You can notice your thoughts and feelings, but you don't have to blurt them out or lose your temper. There's a toolkit of meditation practices and techniques that can help you keep your calm and prevent conflict. Many online resources and meditation apps offer tips, tools, teachings and guided practices. Here's five ways to get started.
1. Start simple with 'micro-hits' of meditation
The moment something provokes or annoys us, we have a choice. We can react with emotion – which may manifest as anger, sarcasm, or just a slight edge to our tone — or we can learn to tamp down our responses through meditation practice. The easiest way to get started is to focus on your breath, says UCLA's Michael Irwin.
"Sit for a moment and just take a deep breath," focusing on the inhale, the breath coming into your mouth, nose, and into your belly, and then exhaling. "That's an opportunity for you to be present in that moment," he says.
You can do this anywhere, at any time, whether you're stuck in traffic, in a line at the grocery store, or if you find yourself annoyed by the conversation around you. "We all have to breathe all the time, and just being aware of our breath is a perfect anchor," Irwin says.
"You can just stop and take an opportunity to do that breathing for one or two minutes," Irwin explains. He calls these short breaks, "micro hits" of meditation. He points to the UCLA mindful app, which is free, for ways to get started.
2. Rise and Shine. Try a morning self-kindness meditation
Start your day by saying, "l love you," to yourself. Yes, I know that sounds awkward. The first time I tried it, it sounded silly. But a video from psychologist and mindfulness expert Shauna Shapiro encouraged me to keep trying. "What you practice grows stronger," says Shapiro, who explains how she learned to cultivate a practice of self-love.
"A pathway of kindness has been established," which begins by offering yourself a gesture of kindness each morning. It sounds cheesy, but I love this video, and it's a reminder that if you can't feel self-love, you may want to explore that.
3. Let it RAIN. A 4-step approach to center your soul
Today is likely to be different than what you've imagined, in some way, big or small. And for some of us, uncertainty – or unexpected changes – can fuel anxiety.
If you're feeling stuck, you can use a practice developed by the world renown psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, called RAIN, to identify what's got you snagged and work your way out of it.
R stands for recognize, which is sensing the predominant feeling you're feeling at the moment.
A — allow, is taking a beat to say, it's ok, I'm taking a pause to work on this.
I — investigate, a moment to ask yourself a few questions about what you're feeling. And,
N — nurture, "this is all about learning to be kind to yourself," Brach says. Often, it requires working through feelings of anxiety, shame or feeling 'less than'.
"After RAIN, we can sense a shift in how we feel. We sense the quality of presence that's opened up," she says.
4. Sweet dreams, meditation to promote sleep
Good sleep is key to good health overall, and it can also help us regulate our mood and keep an even temperament. "When people are sleep deprived that actually leads to emotional dysregulation," says UCLA's Irwin. His research has shown that a mindful awareness practice can help improve sleep among older adults who had moderate sleep disturbances. There are a range of options, including the body scan for sleep meditation which can help you feel grounded and ready for a good night's rest.
"We've found that even the practice of meditation for 10 minutes before you go to sleep actually helps you improve your sleep," Irwin says. " So we know that very short periods of meditation can also have beneficial effects."
5. This meditation helps cultivate good vibes and memories
Don't be turned off by the wu wu name, because the loving kindness meditation can be beneficial even amid stressful or anxious times. It begins with you repeating this phrase: "May I be happy? May I be healthy? May I be filled with loving kindness and peace," explains Amanda Lathan, a meditation teacher and Ph.D candidate in psychology and neuroscience at St. Andrews University.
The practice moves on by asking you to extend compassion outward, to different people, including someone you love, a mere acquaintance, and also to someone you may dislike or have trouble with. "May you be happy and healthy and may you be filled with loving kindness and peace," you say.
One of the biggest roadblocks to meditation is it's really difficult to just sit still, says Lathan. So having this phrase or mantra to repeat gives you something to think about and to visualize. "So it actually keeps you quite occupied."
Lathan is the author of a new study that finds practicing this kind of meditation daily for one month can help you retrieve good memories.
It may be that the loving kindness meditation can help shift our memories, to see things in a more positive light, she says.
This takes me back to my vacation last month. Despite the weather and sickness – we did have some lovely dinners, lots of laughs and walks on the beach. Lathan's research suggests, adding this daily mediation, may help me remember the good stuff, and leave the bad bits behind.