For some, the holidays are a joyous occasion they look forward to each year. Gifts, dinners, baking, decorating, shopping, and carols brighten their days. This is often celebrated in the Hallmark Christmas movies and specials you see on TV.
And yet, at the same time, the holidays can be a difficult time for others. Though it isn’t talked about as much, the holidays can be filled with stress, anxiety, and depression. For these individuals, it is the time of year they dread most. These feelings shouldn't be dismissed. The toll the holidays can have on one’s physical and mental health can have lasting effects and makes it very difficult to get through.
Life’s pressures are heightened during the holidays. You’ve got unwelcomed surprise guests, others that overstay their welcome, work potlucks, cookie swaps, and gift-giving. So, naturally, this means more time cooking, shopping, cleaning, and entertaining.
Many of us put pressure on ourselves to do it all and create the “perfect” holiday for our family’s – but at what cost? If you stop prioritizing your own needs, well-being and health, it can make it much more challenging.
If this sounds familiar, you aren’t alone. Many people feel the same way but feel a sense of shame in admitting it. Acknowledging your own feelings about the holidays can help prevent the stress and depression surrounding it. It is normal to feel grief or sadness too. The holiday season can trigger many emotions, and you may think of people who you have lost, grieve a loved one or reflect on your own life and the time that has passed. Don’t pressure yourself to feel happy and excited if you’re not.
Experts also recommend reaching out to others, whether that be family, friends, religious community, or a support group. Having a support system and companionship during difficult times can make the holidays easier. This support system can also help keep you accountable in maintaining boundaries and prioritizing your own well-being.
Whether you are prone to holiday stress or not, the following expert tips will help you manage your physical and mental health over the holiday season.
- Know it’s okay to say no
The holiday season can ask a lot of us. Perhaps you’ve been asked to make costumes for your child’s holiday pageant, or your sister asked you to bake four dozen cookies for a Christmas fundraiser. It can be a demanding time, and if you don’t learn to say no, you can become resentful and feel overwhelmed.
Don’t feel obligated to say yes to everything. It’s fine to help out or RSVP to a Christmas party when you can, but you need to let friends and family know when it's too much. Your schedule doesn’t need to be booked solid to say no, either. To prevent feelings of overwhelm, you should have time to rest, where you are free to do nothing or something you enjoy doing.
- Set realistic expectations
Many holiday-related disappointments stem from unrealistic expectations. You may envision your house perfectly decorated and spotless 24 hours a day, but it’s not realistic. Maybe there’s a pile of laundry that hasn’t been folded or pots and pans sitting in your kitchen sink – it's okay!
Setting realistic expectations also applies to holiday get-togethers and traditions. It can be tempting to hold on to your childhood holiday memories and traditions, but you must realize that as families grow and change, these traditions will as well. In addition, finding new ways to celebrate the holidays can help you feel more fulfilled. For example, try asking friends over if you no longer live near family or volunteer, serving those in need.
- Stick to a budget
Nearly every year, consumer spending on holiday gifts increases from the previous year. Estimates suggest that the average American will spend $998 on gifts and holiday expenses this season. If you have the money to spend and feel comfortable, go for it, but if you become anxious and stressed about maxing out credit cards and going into overdraft, then don’t.
Set a budget for holiday spending in advance to prevent this from happening this year. Make your holiday shopping lists once you know how much you can spend. And remember, you don’t need to buy many gifts to show someone you can. There are plenty of gift-giving alternatives that don’t cost much money but can make the season feel special. For example, you can give a charitable donation in their name, take on a DIY gift or start a family gift exchange.
- Get enough sleep
Just because you are busier and it’s the holiday season doesn’t mean you should ignore your own healthy habits. For starters, ensure you are getting enough sleep at night. With holiday parties and lengthy to-do lists, you may start cutting back on sleep to fit it all in. This can be detrimental to your well-being. According to Psychology Today, sleep deprivation can severely impact your mood, and your physical and mental health will deteriorate. So instead, stick to your usual bedtime and lay your head on your buckwheat pillow each night for at least 7 to 8 hours.
- Prioritize healthy eating habits
It is also easy to overindulge during the holidays, which can further add to guilt, stress, and fatigue. Feel free to enjoy seasonal treats and beverages, but make sure you also drink enough water and have a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. If you need some nutritional support, try adding a multivitamin or probiotic.
- Exercise regularly
Regular exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety that may build over the holidays. When you exercise, your body releases mood-boosting endorphins to reduce anxiety and depression.
Experts recommend getting at least 30 minutes of exercise every day to feel these positive effects. If you can, aim to get some of this exercise outdoors. Even if the temperatures are lower, getting outside and being exposed to natural sunlight will help your body produce vitamin D and increase serotonin levels.
Yoga is another excellent form of exercise that can help reduce stress. Considered a moving meditation, it will allow you to focus on your breath and stay in the present moment.
- Keep a schedule and plan ahead
When you are keeping a running to-do list and calendar of events in your head, it can feel more stressful. This keeps your mind busy and can create additional stress when you are left rushing around at the last minute because you forgot something.
Print out a calendar for the month ahead and keep it somewhere visible. Next, write down any events or plans you have. If you need to do some shopping or baking, schedule this in your calendar and the time required to shop for supplies. The more you plan, the more you will feel in control. This may also stop you from overcommitting when you have a visual reminder of what’s on your plate for the weeks ahead.
- Don’t rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms
When anxiety and stress build, you may rationalize pouring yourself another drink, taking a pill, or snacking on unhealthy foods. Though it may feel like a relief in the moment, it can actually make your stress and anxiety worse. Instead, try healthy outlets like calming your mind on a meditation pillow, going for a walk outside, or speaking to a loved one.
The risk of substance abuse increases during the holidays as some are plagued with feelings of isolation, stress, or reliving old traumas. Acknowledge these feelings and ask for support if you need it. Try to keep any temptations out of your home, and stock your cupboard and refrigerator will healthy food and drinks.
- Acknowledge that this year, like last, may look different
Though life is returning to normal in some areas, many people are still overcoming the effects of the pandemic. The past two years have brought about unique mental health stresses that can negatively impact one’s life. Perhaps you can’t see family members that live in another country with travel restrictions, or you lost your job; no matter how you have been impacted, your feelings matter.
A study published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioural Science found that being aware and acknowledging the reality of life amid the pandemic can help you overcome it psychologically. Acknowledge that although things may not be ideal now, it is temporary and will get better.
The holidays don’t need to be filled with dread and struggle. You can better manage your physical and mental health over the holidays by using these tips here. And if, despite your efforts, you feel as though you are still struggling, reach out to a professional.