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The holidays can be stressful enough. Then came omicron


And unfortunately, the pandemic is showing no signs of slowing just yet. In fact, thanks to the rapidly spreading omicron variant and surging coronavirus cases, this holiday season may feel a lot like last holiday season. If you're feeling extra stressed this year, you're not alone. We've called up someone who has advice for those of us feeling the pandemic holiday blues. Magdalena Bak-Maier is a neuroscientist, wellness coach and author, and she joins us now from London.

Magdalena Bak-Maier, welcome.

MAGDALENA BAK-MAIER: Hello. Lovely to be with you.

NADWORNY: So what is it about the winter holiday season that makes it such a hard time, even without a pandemic?

BAK-MAIER: Well, Christmas, you know, is very known to psychologists for being a highly triggering sort of event, if for no other reason than because it tends to bring up a lot of family dynamics. It reminds us of our connection with our relatives, memories of people we might have potentially lost, and the stress of it being quite performative, as in, you know, we're asked to be jolly and happy and maybe put on masks of all of that or take part in things when maybe some of us kind of want to sit on the sidelines and not really be part of it. So there's an awful lot about Christmas in its own right that can be very loaded for quite a lot of us.

NADWORNY: What can people do if they're feeling like this? Any tips or concrete steps for people who might be spending the next week more isolated than they'd like?

BAK-MAIER: Yes. So when people are feeling helpless in any situation, if we can't do it alone, we should certainly reach out for help through any possible means and not find ourselves isolated and alone and trying to deal with these emotions on our own. On the other hand, there are short-term things that we can all do to help us feel far better, which is to think about the short term, as in, you know, many times, we catastrophize or think about these fearful situations that our minds can imagine, which are very large, and they can happen on a larger timescale. But oftentimes, what we have to really think about is, how am I going to make today be a really good day?

So I would invite people to really think about, how do you construct the next 24 hours? How do you plan to make sure that you have some things you can look forward to and begin to take that control back and that sense of agency and really thinking about how you look after yourself. And that comfort can give your nervous system a better sense that, actually, you can survive the moment - and also looking back at different situations in your history where you might have overcome some difficult experiences, to fall back on the sense that, you know, if you were able to do that and were resilient in the past, then your own history suggests that you'll be able to get across whatever the next obstacle is as well.

NADWORNY: You created a tool for self-care and productivity called the Grid. Can you tell us about that? And how can we use the Grid during this period to keep us well?

BAK-MAIER: Yes, of course. Grid is a very simple two-by-two matrix. In the Grid, we have effectively four areas that people are invited to look after. And they are life, self-care, work and career. So the Grid simply really invites people to kind of make a table of, you know, four lines and say, what can you do today or this week or this month or this year that is good for your personal life? What can you do that's good for your work? Then what can you do to self-care? So how can you look after your emotional well-being, your physical well-being, your mental well-being, et cetera? And what can you do to give yourself a sense of meaning or purpose, which is under the career part? When we do not balance these four areas, we end up creating deficits that over time creates an imbalance in our nervous system in the way we perceive our levels of safety, connection and joy that creates a situation where we start to feel like we're not as well as we can be.

NADWORNY: You've said that the Grid is, at least in part, a tool for productivity. But I have to ask, you know, for those of us feeling the fatigue of this year - the last two years, really - productivity might sound like a dirty word. Is there any room to be unproductive?

BAK-MAIER: Absolutely. And, in fact, you know, what I have always thought about in terms of productivity has been more along the lines of meaningful productivity, very holistic productivity. And the idea of really being productive goes back to some of the good, wise, you know, sages of different centuries, to sort of say, how do we live our life with meaning in a way where we are looking after ourselves? - which is why the Grid has that whole quadrant for self-care. And that will mean different things to different people. So you could be productive by taking time out and ensuring you get enough sleep or that you take time away from people to actually be in solitude and recharge your batteries that way.

NADWORNY: Why is self-care and the development of routines like this, like the Grid, so helpful in maintaining well-being, especially during times like this?

BAK-MAIER: Well, what we know about routines is the fact that routines, from a neurological point of view, is something that we are - or our minds are able to do through the basal ganglia, to the sort of much more evolutionarily older parts of our brain. In other words, we don't have to think about them. So the more we can fall back on the routine, the less thinking is involved. And that's where routine behaviors become really sort of a bit of a safety net so that even if I find it really hard, I know that I get up. And I brush my teeth. And I make my bed. And I give myself a breakfast. And that's already a really good start, you know? And from then on, your brain develops cues from your actions. So as you're moving forward in the day, your mind is getting this cue like, hold on a second. I'm holding it. You know, I'm getting on with the day. And that reinforces a sort of positive loop of direct experience that we're showing up.

NADWORNY: That was Magdalena Bak-Maier. She's a neuroscientist, author and wellness coach based in London. Magdalena Bak-Maier, thank you so much for being with us today.

BAK-MAIER: It's my absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me. And I hope everyone can put a dose of extra self-care into their day.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE NATIONALS' "TIME (INSTUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.