The Holidays can be a stressful time for many reasons, heightened expectations, family dynamics, the absence of a loved one, finances, and lack of time for self-care can all contribute. Trying to find balance between too much and not enough can be especially challenging. It’s important we not get overwhelmed and loose sight of the bigger picture, that of connection, kindness, and love.

Imagine the fundamental essence of love being the same across all relationships, from parents and children, to romantic partners, friends, and even total strangers. This is so according to Barbbara Fredrickson, psychologist and author of Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. She believes “love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people… connect over a shared positive emotion”, an experience she calls “positivity resonance”.

Increasing Positive Connections

As part of Fredrickson’s research on love her team measured vagal tone, the degree to which your breathing pattern affects your heart rate. People who experience higher vagal tone have a heart rate that slows down slightly as they exhale, which predicts better immune function, cardiovascular health, and glucose regulation. In addition, higher vagal tone is associated with being better able to read others emotions and expressions, and predicts whether we find social interactions enjoyable as opposed to threatening.

To increase her research subject’s daily experiences of positive emotions, Fredrickson used the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness meditation (LKM), which helps to generate feelings of warmth, friendliness, kindness and compassion toward oneself and others. Study participants practiced LKM a minimum of 15 minutes 3 times a week. Results found that when practicing LKM our hearts literally become more responsive to our breath, generating higher vagal tone as we experience loving feelings toward others. Fredrickson views LKM as a “preparatory activity that makes positive connections more likely.”

I had tried LKM in the past without the knowledge of how highly beneficial an ongoing practice could be. The research results from this simple meditation seemed too good to be true, so I looked for related studies. Two that stood out: research conducted at Emory University in 2008 suggested that individuals who engage in LKM “may benefit by reductions in inflammatory and behavioral responses to stress” that have been linked to depression, heart disease and diabetes; and a pilot trial targeting chronic low back pain at Duke University Medical Center, 2005, found LKM to be “beneficial in reducing pain, anger, and psychological distress in patients with low back pain.”

What is Lovingkindness Meditation?

Lovingkindness, also known as Metta Meditation, dates beck to 5th century Buddhism, and refers to a mental state of unselfish and unconditional kindness to all beings. The Chinese meaning for metta is benevolence, to cultivate benevolence. The meditation has been used for centuries to develop love and transform anger into compassion. LKM involves gently repeating certain phrases (as listed below) in order to direct mettas positive energy of feeling towards other people, as well as oneself.

According to Ann Marie Chiasson, MD, when we release anger, feel our grief underneath the anger, let it move through, then forgive, it provides instant balance to certain aspects of the energy body and a feeling of expansion. This level of forgiveness is an art and requires practice. Only you can know when and if you will be ready to forgive, it should never be forced; yet you can still benefit from the LKM as you honor your connection with others, and yourself.

Before you begin the meditation choose someone for the third stanza with whom you are experiencing a small degree of difficulty. After you have practiced enough to feel familiar with LKM you can choose people and situations where forgiveness is more challenging. As you practice it is important to bring full awareness to the phrases, their meaning, and any feelings they bring up. After completing the meditation notice without judgment any sensations that you feel in your body. Do you feel more expanded or constricted after this practice and how do you recognize this?

Whether spending the Holidays visiting with a friend, surrounded by loved ones, or volunteering your time at a soup kitchen, remember that love is built around shared positive emotions. The essence of relationship lies in these micro moments of connection. As Fredrickson notes, “the positive experiences we have in conjunction with others are like nutrients: we need daily doses of them in order to stay healthy.” Wishing you heightened vagal tone with an abundance of positive connection this Holiday season.

Metta Meditation; Lovingkindness

Repeat the four stanzas below four or more times each.

May I be at peace.

May my heart remain open.

May I awaken to the light of my own true nature.

May I be healed.

May I be a source of healing for all beings.

Bring into your awareness someone you love.

May you be at peace.

May your heart remain open.

May you awaken to the light of your own true nature.

May you be healed.

May you be a source of healing for all beings.

Bring into your awareness someone you’re having difficulty with.

May you be at peace.

May your heart remain open.

May you awaken to the light of your own true nature.

May you be healed.

May you be a source of healing for all beings.

Bring into your awareness a group, a system, or all living things.

May we be at peace.

May our hearts remain open.

May we awaken to the light of our own true nature.

May we be healed.

May we be a source of healing for all beings.

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