As I’m writing this, Thanksgiving is just behind us, and we are looking toward the next several winter holidays: Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day.
Is it just me or does just thinking about it now seem exhausting?
Wintertime really tries to be that “Most Wonderful Time of The Year.” But is it though?
Personally, I’d say it might be the most stressful time of the year. So much to plan and prepare, so many decisions to make, so many gifts to buy, and gatherings to visit.
How to deal with holiday stress and keep sound mental health during the holidays?
Over the years I’ve discovered a few tricks that make it more manageable to cope with the stress and come out whole when the whole hoopla is over by February.
- Factors that Impact Mental Health during the Holidays
- Physical Factors
- Emotional Factors
- Financial Factors
- Tips for Better Mental Health During the Holidays
- 1. Recognize Your Limits
- 2. Listen to Your Body and Act Upon the Signs It Gives You
- 3. Set Clear Boundaries and Learn to Say No
- 4. Get Enough Sleep
- 5. Exercise Regularly
- 6. Stay Mindful of Eating and Drinking in Excess
- 7. Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself
- The Takeaway
Factors that Impact Mental Health during the Holidays
There is a variety of reasons why one might not be bright and cheery during the holiday season.
Maybe you don’t feel your best due to illness, maybe you feel emotionally drained or overworked, maybe you deal with loss, and celebrating is the last thing on your mind.
Still, the pressure to get into that “holiday spirit” seems to be lurking everywhere.
Holiday decorations are on display pretty much from Halloween on (this is such a pet peeve of mine, why start with the Xmas too early????).
Our mailboxes are getting stuffed with offers of the “biggest deal of the year” (until the next one a few days later).
The struggle is real.
Let’s unpack some of the factors that might contribute to less than optimal mental health during the holidays.
Especially since we’ve been dealing with the pandemic that started in 2019 and seems to not want to end, feeling under the weather has a whole lot of other connotations than before.
Whereas prior to Covid, it was almost expected to get occasional seasonal sniffles, maybe a cold, maybe even a bout of flu.
Nowadays – at least in our, fully vaccinated family, but still – we get immediately scared that something more than these “regular” ailments might be at fault.
Anxiety about getting sick or getting someone else sick – even while being vaccinated one might contract from, and infect, others – adds to the holiday stress.
Christmas parties? Maybe still not this year. Fly across the country for a wholesome family celebration? I’ll pass.
How to cope with these issues?
There are things we can do to help deal with physical limitations such as illness or anxiety about getting sick during the “pandemic holidays.”
Here are a few guidelines, adapted from the California Department of Public Health:
- Stay home if you feel sick.
- Don’t attend gatherings if you are in a high-risk group.
- Practice physical distancing and hand hygiene at gatherings.
- Wear a face covering and keep your mask in a safe place when eating or drinking.
For those dealing with mental health issues, be it mild or severe, the holiday season can be a very difficult time indeed. Some of us are dealing with:
- Sense of the overwhelm
- Sense of loss
- Isolation or loneliness
These “holiday blues” must be dealt with early on, before they lead to a less manageable crisis. Probably the most important thing is to realize that you’re not alone.
I can well imagine that almost everyone has to cope with at least one if not more of the factors mentioned above.
The holiday season can be special and wonderful, but all the planning, preparing, socializing, gift buying, and giving are stressors for sure.
Add to it that in the Northern Hemisphere the holiday season falls onto the months with coldest temperatures and shortest and darkest days, and it becomes clear that the “blues” around this time is not that surprising at all.
How to Deal with Emotional Stressors?
Mindfulness can be your secret weapon when it comes to beating the holiday blues.
Being mindful of your feelings can help catch the symptoms before they flare up and so hopefully make any mental health problems less severe.
Being conscious of what makes you happy and what triggers less happy feelings is also a great way to keep away from the bad and to gravitate toward the good.
This leads me to another set of issues that might be adding to the already existing strain upon our mental health – the financial aspects of the holidays.
Surely everyone tries to make this time of the year special in whatever way they can, be it decorating, preparing special meals, traveling, attending parties, shows, concerts, gift exchanges, etc.
All of this does not come cheap.
Even though we go through these seemingly never-ending runups to the Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and then extensions of those until the end of the year, the bottom line is, whatever one buys, it costs money and it is the money that is spent above and beyond the regular spending.
For those of us on a tight budget, this extra demand on the wallet can be very stressful and anxiety-causing. Choices have to be made, budgets revised, expenses cut.
How to deal with this set of factors?
The best advice I ever got from a wise family member was to make and stick to a budget.
Rather than agonizing over every dime spent, I try to design a plan with expenses for each category such as travel, food, decorations, gifts, socializing.
Of course, sometimes I’ll get over the spending limit in one area, but then I try to compensate by spending less on another. It is not a cure-all but at least it gives me a feeling of some level of control over holiday expenditures which as we all know can get out of hand easily.
And also, remember this:
You can also simply let people know you are unable to give gifts this year. … You can also give the gift of helping a neighbor, a friend, a family member, or a stranger. It’s the act of giving that is more important than a present.McLean Hospital
RELATED POST: Powerful Stress Coping Strategies
Tips for Better Mental Health During the Holidays
Here are a few points that I gathered over the years in dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression related to the holiday season.
1. Recognize Your Limits
As a much younger woman, I believed I can do it all. Plan, buy, prepare, clean up, and everything else, just to show what a great hostess I was, what a marvelous “Martha Stewart” I could be.
The result? Exhaustion and resentment toward all those who enjoyed and praised my endeavors but did not help (because I did not ask them to help).
As the wise midlife woman that I am now, :), I learned to delegate and to accept that the task performed by someone else might not be exactly done the way I envisioned it, but it does not mean that it is done in a worse or less capable way.
2. Listen to Your Body and Act Upon the Signs It Gives You
I also learned to read my body better, and at the first sign of exhaustion, physical or mental, I know to retreat, slow down, and rest. This approach has been so helpful in avoiding burnout and emotional stress.
Taking a short nap or using some kind of relaxation technique to cope with the stress offers a great way to recharge the batteries during this stressful time.
Gentle yoga, meditation, breathing exercise, a short walk around the block, or a long bath, whatever helps you relax and refocus will benefit you in the long run.
When things become too overwhelming, take a step back and take some time for yourselfAdvanced Psychiatry Associates
3. Set Clear Boundaries and Learn to Say No
Whereas the two tips above are mainly about knowing your own limits and acting upon them in terms of the expectations you have about yourself, this tip is about setting the boundaries between you and the world around you.
Prioritize the most important activities or schedule get-togethers for after the holidays: If you feel overwhelmed by social obligations and what others are asking of you, learn how to be comfortable saying “no”Putting People First in Mental Health
Whether with close family members, extended family visiting for the holidays, co-workers, or friends; there might be expectations that you simply cannot and should not fulfill.
Do not extend yourself beyond your limits. If you know that you do not want to do something or that you will not have time or energy to do it, simply and politely say no.
4. Get Enough Sleep
During the stressful holiday season, it is crucial to get enough sleep, possibly even more so than during the “regular” time of the year.
Especially if traveling or hosting guests is in the picture, it is easy to forget the importance of sleep.
Lack of sleep can trigger a host of emotional issues and for those already struggling with mental health problems, it might make them all the more pronounced.
Sleep is closely connected to mental and emotional health and has demonstrated links to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other conditions.Mental Health and Sleep
5. Exercise Regularly
It is pretty obvious that exercise has so many health benefits but most of the time, we tend to think of exercise in terms of physical health: staying fit, losing weight and keeping it off, getting trimmed and toned.
I never realized how crucial exercise was for my mental health until I started a regular fitness regimen.
Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in our bodies and hence leads to better emotional health.
For me, getting an hour on a spin bike or walking briskly through a park is an immense stress reliever. Sometimes it seems like I have zero time for exercise. Then I tell myself: find the time! It is so worth it.
For even more benefits, try exercising in nature. I wrote elsewhere about the benefits of being in nature for our physical and emotional health. It is really a game-changer!
6. Stay Mindful of Eating and Drinking in Excess
The holiday season comes with so many temptations when it comes to food and drink. And we should indulge in some of these, by all means.
However, it makes little sense to fall off the wagon completely and rely on the New Year’s Resolutions to fix the overeating and over-drinking after the holidays are over.
Enjoying food and drink with friends and family during holiday gatherings is a great way to socialize and relieve stress if that is what you personally like to do.
But, for me, waking up hungover and bloated from overeating the night before has always been a major downer. Gorging the night before is just not worth it. Being mindful of what we eat and how much can have long-lasting positive effects.
7. Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself
Many of us set high and often unrealistic goals during the holidays.
We want the house to be decorated like in an architecture and decor magazine, we want the food to be perfectly cooked and presented, we want the gifts to be packaged with utmost care and perfectly chosen and appreciated.
Some might feel less than perfect if their holiday outing, holiday outfit, holiday decorations are not 100% instagramable.
But – Perfection does not exist! Imperfection is normal and a part of life. Accept it, go with the flow, enjoy what is and don’t agonize over what should or could be.
The most wonderful time of the year does not have to become the most stressful time of the year.
With enough planning and preparation, setting aside some time for oneself, and practicing relaxation, we can cope with the stressors that come with the holidays.
The most important thing in my view is to remember what counts.
Not the gifts, not the perfectly set table, not the biggest tree, not the best-organized holiday gathering. What matters is health, love, and the quality time spend with others.
Have the healthiest and happiest holidays and may all the stressors stay at bay!
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