This time last year, COVID caused my family, like many others, to cancel annual holiday traditions and settle for smaller gatherings. During these dinners, hand sanitizer bottles lined a socially distance-spaced table like chic centerpieces. These sort of sterile suppers were a far cry from our previous holly jolly jubilees where everyone was embracing each other and noshing from the same shareable plates.

It’s with a huge sigh of relief that many of us are greeting more traditional -- if still cautious -- holidays. But it’s important that we ease into the holiday rush. If you’re not mindful during this busy time, it’s easy to get swept up in all the hoopla.

Returning to in-person celebrations after the quiet lull of last year may make this season feel more hectic, said Scott Glassman, director of the master of applied positive psychology program at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. “We tend to speed up, especially as we notice so many more items on our to-do list. This pulls us away from being present,” he said. “Getting caught up in controlling our holiday experience can cause us to miss the pleasure and meaning in each step along the way.”

Last week, we focused on a way to reduce the stress we feel in our bodies with a stretching routine to release soreness and stiffness. This week, let’s focus on our minds.

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Mindfulness essentially means to be present. A state that can seem challenging to achieve at times, but becomes easier with practice. By mastering the art of mindfulness, we can savor the now and reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress related to the past or future.

So how does one become more mindful? “The more you feel yourself speeding up, the more you want to ask yourself to slow down,” Glassman recommended. “After the brakes are on, explore the event fully with what I call a ‘deep dive’ question, like ‘What is special about this to me?’ This way we are more likely to feel the fullness of love for others, enter into states of reflection and remembrance, and deepen our appreciation for what we do have.”

Between gift-giving, event planning, and juggling family obligations, we can start to lose touch with the real reason for the season, which is to be thankful. Gratitude and mindfulness go hand-in-hand. “Mindfulness moves us from a deficit mindset to a fullness mindset rooted in the present. And it’s because we have slowed down and created that extra space, we are more likely to marvel, sense pleasure, and connect with a broader, more positive perspective,” said Glassman.

If you are new to mindfulness practices, Glassman suggests trying two daily exercises:

Write it down. In Glassman’s new book, A Happier You, he shares ways to bring gratitude more fully into your life, such as keeping a gratitude journal where each day you write down one thing you’re thankful for. For this exercise to work, don’t think too hard. You can be thankful for something as basic as breathing. “You might think, ‘That one breath brings me to a more relaxed place,’” said Glassman. In addition to journaling, Glassman recommends sharing the gift of gratitude by writing an appreciation note to someone you admire.

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Find five minutes just for you. Everyone has five minutes to spare in their day. First spend a minute or two as a “gentle observer to your breath and whatever is happening around your breath -- whether it’s stressful thoughts about the holidays or something you need to do that day,” Glassman said. Your goal is to allow whatever arises to be present.

Then use the next three minutes to spark positive feelings. Try one of these three techniques: bringing to mind something you’re thankful for, picturing something you are looking forward to, or remembering something someone said or did that left you feeling good about yourself.

“For the last minute, stay immersed in the pleasant feelings you’ve created,” he said.

By getting into the habit of practicing mindfulness and gratitude, you’ll find more fulfillment not only during the holidays, but in your everyday life, too.

Ashley Blake Greenblatt is a certified personal trainer and wellness coach in South Jersey. Learn more about her virtual training program at ashleyblakefitness.com.