By Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP
Have you ever found yourself wishing someone “happy holidays” while you feel anything but happy inside? If so, you’re definitely not alone. While there are certainly many reasons to be joyful at this time of year, it’s also a busy and stressful time. Plus, many of us struggle with comparisons of the perfectly festive things we’re shown in the media and our own reality.
Add in shorter, darker days and colder temperatures, and it becomes a challenge to stay on top of your mental and physical health. A majority of people with mental health conditions find their condition worsens over the holidays. And even for people who don’t normally experience depression, December can be marked by an increase in loneliness, anxiety, and fatigue.
This year will be different! A few lifestyle changes can help you thrive in the next few weeks as you enjoy a health and stress-free holiday season.
Here are some tips to help you keep up with or kick start healthy habits over the busy and often stressful holiday season.
A study commissioned by the National Mental Health Association identified some of the top stressors of the holiday season as:
- Lack of time: 69% of women and 63% of men
- Lack of money: 69% of women and 55% of men
- Gift-giving pressure: 51% of women and 42% of men
It’s important to realize that these pressures can be managed. The key is prioritization. Don’t be afraid to say no to events that won’t bring you joy. Avoid overcommitment so you can really appreciate the people and events that are most meaningful.
Making a budget before the holiday season can help you stick to realistic spending habits. You don’t want to start the new year with the additional stress of debt. Keep in mind that studies have found that experiences are often more memorable gifts than things. Activities like offering to babysit for a stressed-out mother, going for a walk with a lonely senior, or cooking a fancy dinner at home can ultimately be more appreciated than breaking your budget.
Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that our fears of holiday weight gain are often exaggerated – the average person gains less than a pound. So, instead of trying to limit intake, skipping meals, and stressing about treats, focus on eating and drinking for energy throughout the season. Here are some tips that may help:
- Eating natural whole foods will protect your mental health, energy levels, and digestion. Before a party, try to eat a balanced meal, complete with complex carbs, healthy fats, and quality protein.
- For potluck parties, offer to bring something healthy like a fruit salad, veggie tray (raw or grilled, doesn’t have to be boring!) or a nutrient packed salad.
- Don’t be afraid to try a seasonal treat! Eat treats mindfully, taking the time to savor the flavors. Many people have special memories associated with treats that are only available at this time of the year.
- At the moment it might feel like alcoholic drinks make things merry, but keep in mind that alcohol is a depressant, reduces decision-making skills, dehydrates your cells, and of course isn’t safe if you drive. If you’re already feeling stressed, alcohol can often make things worse. Fortunately, a lot of exciting non-alcoholic drinks have entered the market, including kombucha, much-improved non-alcoholic beer, and low-sugar sparkling drinks. If you do want to drink alcohol, be sure to drink a lot of water after every drink.
It’s easy to hibernate when it’s dark and cold outside, but don’t let the weather slow you down. For social gatherings, suggest active get-togethers like walks, and if you’re able, explore winter sports like skiing, skating and snowshoeing.
“Getting in shape” is one of the most popular New Year’s resolutions, but there’s no reason you have to wait until the new year! Even though you’re busy, exercising during the holidays will help you cope with stress and give you energy. You don’t have to commit to long workouts – every bit of activity helps. If you’re limited by time and money, you can find free workouts for every level and every length on YouTube. However, as always, if you’re not sure where to start, talk to a professional.
It’s hard to be energized and festive when you’re not getting enough sleep. No matter how busy you are, do your best to stick to your regular sleep schedule. It can take up to four days to recover from one hour of missed sleep!
With all the stimulation of the holidays, you might find it harder to settle down to sleep and stay asleep. Focus on maintaining good sleep hygiene, including:
- Reduce blue light exposure from your phone and other devices before bedtime. Blue light suppresses your body’s production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
- Maintain a calm and cool sleeping environment.
- Avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime.
- Don’t drink alcohol or eat right before you go to sleep.
Emotions can run high during the holidays. We often remember those who are no longer with us, or wonder why our own festivities don’t measure up to a Hallmark holiday movie. Try to give some grace to yourself and others. Take a deep breath before you react to personal conflicts. Reach out to people you know are alone, and touch base with those you haven’t seen in a while.
When you give back to your community, you also experience many health benefits yourself. Studies have linked volunteer time with improved mental health, proving that volunteering or donating to a worthwhile charity can help elevate your mood.
Staying healthy and happy over the holidays and into the new year, doesn’t have to be difficult. Reach out if you need assistance with any aspect of your wellbeing in the coming weeks.
National Alliance on Mental Health, “Mental Health and the Holiday Blues” https://www.nami.org/Press-Media/Press-Releases/2014/Mental-health-and-the-holiday-blues
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, “Holiday Stress”
Cindy Chan, Cassie Mogilner. Experiential Gifts Foster Stronger Social Relationships than Material Gifts. Journal of Consumer Research, 2016; ucw067 DOI: 10.1093/jcr/ucw067
Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Sovik KN, Nguyen TT, O’Neil PM, Sebring NG. A prospective study of holiday weight gain. N Engl J Med. 2000 Mar 23;342(12):861-7. doi: 10.1056/NEJM200003233421206. PMID: 10727591; PMCID: PMC4336296
Kitamura S, Katayose Y, Nakazaki K, Motomura Y, Oba K, Katsunuma R, Terasawa Y, Enomoto M, Moriguchi Y, Hida A, Mishima K. Estimating individual optimal sleep duration and potential sleep debt. Sci Rep. 2016 Oct 24;6:35812. doi: 10.1038/srep35812. PMID: 27775095; PMCID: PMC5075948.
Yeung JWK, Zhang Z, Kim TY. Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: cumulative effects and forms. BMC Public Health. 2017 Jul 11;18(1):8. doi: 10.1186/s12889-017-4561-8. Erratum in: BMC Public Health. 2017 Sep 22;17 (1):736. PMID: 28693551; PMCID: PMC5504679.