For as long as I have been practicing psychiatry, helping patients navigate the stress of the holidays has been a primary focus during the months of November and December. For many, the most wonderful time of the year actually turns out to be the most stressful time of the year. Awkward office holiday parties, the burden of family rituals, and unrealistic expectations coupled with the pressure to be merry contribute to holiday woes.
Here are 8 strategies to help make the holidays happy and healthy.
1. Extend grace
“A family member’s critical barb or resentful behavior is not always an expression of contempt and rejection. Quite the opposite: It’s often a bid for connection,” says Emily Esfahani-Smith. Passive aggressive or annoying behavior is sometimes a strategy, albeit a misguided one, to get attention. Instead of getting irritated, be generous in spirit, assume good faith, and change the subject. Those classic arguments are often about something much deeper—a yearning for love, connection, and belonging.
2. Get fresh air
As tempting as it might be to curl up by the fireplace, spend at least 15 minutes a day outside. It will boost your mood and clear your mind of negative thoughts.
3. Know your triggers
Holiday stress combined with the increased abundance of calorie-packed treats can lead to unnecessary eating and drinking. Be aware of those situations and your choices. Life isn’t on hold until January 1. The food we eat has a direct influence on our mental health. Don’t use the holidays as an excuse to put health on the back burner.
4. Ask questions
If you find yourself stuck next to someone uninteresting, instead of dwelling on how dull he or she is, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this person?” Here are some easy icebreakers:
I need some good book suggestions; what was the last book you couldn’t put down?
I love hearing how couples first met, what was your first date like?
5. Sleep it off
I promise you will enjoy the holidays more if you make sleep a priority. Even a night or two of too little rest can impact mood and energy. Exposure to natural daylight is key. People tend to spend less time outdoors in the winter which delays our circadian clock and pushes back the onset of sleep at night. Even if it’s overcast, bundle up and go outside.
6. Gain time by giving it away
Volunteering and doing things for others, rather than focusing on ourselves, is one of the best antidotes for stress. Studies also show that helping out expands our sense of time. When we’re other-focused we experience a time feast instead of a time famine. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Deliver meals to the homebound. Write a note to a friend or relative expressing how much that person means to you. Doing things for others will make you feel less rushed and serves as a great reminder of what really counts.
7. Set limits
Our eyes are often bigger than our stomach when it comes to time with family. While it’s nice to spend time together, know your limits. Choose quality over quantity.
8. Express appreciation
Think of gratitude as an action. It’s a verb that works best when it is embodied, spoken aloud and when it connects you to someone else.
Bottom Line: While it’s impossible to get rid of holiday stress altogether, there are ways to make it more manageable.
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman