It’s December and the holiday craziness is already cranked up—the relentless advertising, the endless holiday muzak, the partying, overeating, and all the over-doing. And if you’re anything like me, there’s always a sense during the holidays that we need to do, give, (or be) more.

On top of all that, for musicians it’s crunch time. For freelancers, private teachers, and music educators—it’s an onslaught of holiday gigs, seasonal performances, and end of semester madness.

So if you’re heading into any holiday stress, blues, or angst, this two step exercise below is for you.

For context: the busy-ness of this time of year can compound any underlying sense that there’s something missing in our lives. And mainstream consumer advertising brainwashes us into thinking that we can spend our way to a happier, more fulfilling holiday season —that this will fill the existential void.

Here’s what really happens: as the year is coming to a close, it’s a natural time for taking stock. Even if it’s unconscious, the holidays highlight what we have and don’t have in our lives. We start ruminating about what what we’ve done, and where we are now.

Before thinking about what’s missing or what we want to change, the first and most essential piece is count our blessings. Don’t skip this—because acknowledging what’s good is exactly what we need in this stressful season.

The Two-Step Visualization Exercise

This simple exercise can help you reframe how you go through the holidays and set the tone for the year to come.

1. Think back to a favorite holiday memory. Pick a moment when you felt genuinely grateful and had a real sense of belonging—when you felt completely accepted and loved for who you are. The memory may have been when you were a kid or it may have been just this last year.

2. Replay it in your mind. Hold that memory for a moment and breathe into it. As you do this, notice how your body feels. Notice how your breathing and how your energy changes, and maybe how the area around your heart softens.

This is gratitude in action. It reminds us of who we really are and how we want to show up in the world for others.

Now what?

You might be thinking, what does this warm and fuzzy holiday memory have to do with my stress in the present? Or for that matter, with my music career advancement?

It turns out, plenty.

It’s simple: the holidays are when we’re all overloaded and we need to take care of ourselves and each other. Being more kind, more grateful, and sensitive with family and friends yes, but also in networking and professional settings.

No matter what the particular role or hat you’re wearing (wife, daughter, parent, freelance musician, teacher, entrepreneur), you are interacting with sensitive over-stressed people.

To be the person you want to become . . .

1. Be grateful

In any kind of in-person communication, take the moment needed to be fully present: to really see and hear the other person. To appreciate and celebrate their goodness. Especially at this time of year, we all need to be more human, more kind, more present with each other and with ourselves.

As for your online communications, don’t hide behind the “professional” facade you’ve manufactured. Set your ego aside and get real, be a human.

2. Be demonstrative

It’s not enough for you to feel grateful. You need to express it. This isn’t about gift giving. It’s about actually looking people in the eye and telling them you appreciate them, that you’re thankful to have them in your life. Tell them what you see in them and especially value. Maybe it’s their energy, or their good ideas, their leadership, commitment, or ability to get you laughing.

Whatever it is, acknowledge it. You will feel good for saying this and they will feel good for being seen and appreciated. Gratitude is a gift—for others and for ourselves.

It’s too easy, when we’re busy and stressed, to think of people in terms of the group we’ve assigned them to—administrators, audience, students, donors, competitors, Democrats, or Republicans. When we do that, we stop seeing the individual in front of us as a person—we only see their role. And when we’re really stressed, we see them as either someone who can help us get what we need / want, or as someone who’s standing in our way. Not good.

If you want a better holiday season, with less stress, start with gratitude and build it into your daily practice.

Even more important, build it into your interactions with other people. Be grateful for the student who’s in front of you. Or for this moment with this colleague, or with this audience. Even in the most challenging interpersonal exchanges we have an opportunity to be grateful for the chance to respond in a way honors both of us. Grateful for the opportunity to learn how to be the person we want to become.

And you bet, what goes around, comes around. When we behave with more integrity, kindness, and gratitude, people around us reciprocate. Be the change you seek to make this holiday season.

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