Holiday Stress and Sense-Based Mindfulness

by Sheila O’Shea

The holidays are a joyous time for many, but they can also be stressful. Cooking huge amounts of food, meeting with crowds of family and friends, the pressure to make everything perfect, the list goes on. Mindfulness—especially sense-based mindfulness—can be helpful in easing holiday stress when dealing with hectic situations. However, focusing on the senses during the holidays can sometimes backfire. Because this is a time of year that revolves around traditions that run all the way back to childhood, each sense can yank you out of the present and into the past. Here are some ways to handle it.

Taste and Smell

Taste and smell are so closely related that they’re practically the same sense. They’re also scientifically proven to be extremely good at evoking memories associated with them, particularly smell. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it can be harder to be fully present when the scent of your favorite pie is taking your mind back to the house you grew up in. Something you can do is focus on another sense, such as touch or hearing, to keep you in the present moment. Another is to put your attention on the food you’re eating as you eat it, which makes food more satisfying as you enjoy the flavors of the season.


Lights and decorations are one of the hallmarks of the holidays. They only come out around this time of year and they evoke that time and all the times they’ve been used before. It’s not uncommon to have a favorite decoration that brings up the past, especially if it’s one that’s unique to you or your family. Look at familiar things closely and with mindfulness, and you may see them as something completely new, as details you’ve grown to take for granted (to the point that you don’t even see them anymore) become more visible with close attention. By seeing it as something novel, you can find yourself more grounded in the moment.


While listening attentively to holiday music can open new sonic landscapes, the real benefit of mindfulness with the sense of hearing is listening to other people. Listening is a gift that allows people to express their authentic selves freely. Paying attention to someone, instead of letting your mind drift or waiting for your turn to say something, is rewarding in and of itself, and allows you to deepen your relationships with families, friends, and even strangers. The connections we make help with stress, and enrich the holidays for us.


Warm embraces are some of the best kinds of touch. All kinds of affectionate touch reduce stress and boost mood, and mindfulness increases those benefits. But you can also use the more all-encompassing sensations. Pay attention to the weather around you, feel the cold against your skin when you’re outdoors, and relish the temperature change as you come inside. These things can help return you to the present moment, where mindfulness lives.

Using your senses to inspire mindfulness during the holidays can make your time richer, more memorable, and less overwhelming. Give it a try and see how it can make your holidays better.

A portrait photo of Sheila O'Shea

Sheila O’Shea is a writer, recovering poet, and one of the first graduates of the Creative Writing program at Emory University. She acted in Theatre Gael’s production of Waiting for Godot, sang on the album The Mod Mod Sounds of Middlesex, and DJed for Emory’s college radio station. She’s currently working on The Ten Thousand Flowers Project, in which she draws flowers and gives them away to people, with the intention of drawing and giving away ten thousand of them. She’s halfway through and still going. You can find out how to get one at She also works as a freelance copywriter, with an emphasis on narrative marketing. You can find out about her writing services at