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Taking Care of Your Mental Health During the Holidays

December 22, 2021

The holidays are a time of excitement and joy, but this time of year can also come with its share of stress or depression. Maintaining a positive mindset and taking care of your mental health during the holidays is not always top of mind, but it is vital to enjoying the season.

Unlike other types of stress, holiday struggles are easier to prepare for because they occur over a short period that begins and ends at a set time. Here are some aspects of the holidays that can spark stress, along with tips to help you plan ahead to cope.

Social gatherings

The holidays can be a great time to reconnect with family and friends. But celebrations can also bring together family and friends with conflicting views. In addition, it is easy to feel over-extended when schedules fill up with parties, events, and travel.

These tips can help reduce or prevent anxiety about holiday gatherings:

  • Agree to set aside differences until a more appropriate time and place for a conversation.
  • Focus on the positives of the event and those around you.
  • Schedule in free days on your calendar.
  • Prioritize and be realistic about the parties and events you can attend.

COVID-19 anxiety

Anxiety over COVID-19 variants and other viruses can overshadow the holiday season as crowds, travel, and large gatherings become more common. The latest report from the American Psychology Association found that 32% of adults surveyed feel stressed about the pandemic and struggle with daily decisions.

If COVID-19 anxiety is worrying you, remember you can always choose no-contact alternatives that allow for safer experiences:

  • Opt for outdoor gatherings.
  • Connect online with loved ones.
  • Travel the way you feel safest.
  • Shop online or choose curbside pickup.

As strategies for a safe and healthy holiday season, the CDC recommends getting your COVID-19 vaccine and your flu shot, wearing a mask, and washing hands.

Unrealistic expectations

Setting high expectations like finding the perfect gifts for everyone or hosting the season's best dinner party can cause increased anxiety. And when reality falls short of that picture-perfect vision, disappointment is ready to take over.

It is important to maintain realistic expectations for yourself and others. You can do this by:

  • Taking a break from social media.
  • Staying flexible, especially when last minute changes arise.
  • Volunteering and donating to charities or families in need.
  • Being present with those around you.
  • Focusing on the positives in your life.
  • Slowing down to take time for yourself.

Unhealthy eating and drinking

Holiday festivities usually means more sugary treats around the workplace and home. People are eating out more and eating on the run. The increase in sugar, salt, and alcohol can make it harder to maintain your health and energy. Partaking in too many sweets and alcohol can also make it more difficult to fend off holiday depression.

Try these habits to balance out the indulgence of the holidays:

  • Bringing along healthy snacks while shopping can help you avoid the temptation to choose fast food or unhealthy snacks.
  • Nutrition experts say it is okay to allow yourself holiday treats in moderation, but make sure you eat plenty of nutrient rich foods and exercise too.
  • The CDC recommends that adults of legal drinking age who choose to drink limit themselves to two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women.

Mood-affecting weather and time changes

It is a natural response to see a change in your habits with the season. Many people sleep more or crave warm heavier meals in the winter. Longer periods of darkness and cooler temperature lead to more time spent indoors. This lowers vitamin D levels the sun naturally provides. And low vitamin D levels can disrupt your mood and make holiday stress more difficult to manage.

Those who see a more drastic change in behavior and mood that disrupts their lives when daylight hours shorten and temperatures drop, may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is different from holiday depression or stress because it is a type of clinical depression that is a result of the way a person’s body works. Talk to your doctor about a treatment plan if you think you are experiencing symptoms of SAD.

You can ease the impact of mild to moderate changes in your mood brought on by winter weather and holiday stress by:

  • Spending 15 - 30 minutes three times per week outdoors during the middle of the day when the sun is brightest.
  • Eating foods rich in vitamin D like seafood, fatty fish, dairy, egg yolks, and mushrooms.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Eating a healthy, nutrient rich diet.
  • Sleeping seven or more hours each night.

Financial worries

A recent report from the National Retail Federation found overall spending during the 2021 holiday season is expected to increase 10.5%. This is the largest single-year increase on record.

Overspending and adding to debt during the holidays can lead to financial stress, which can impact your mental and physical health. Here are some tips experts suggest in order to avoid financial stress during the season of giving:

  • Set a budget and stick to it.
  • Talk to your children about their wish list and set reasonable expectations.
  • Consider alternatives to purchasing commercial gifts.
  • Take advantage of sales throughout the year.
  • Buy and sell gently used items using resale apps, websites, or local consignment stores.
  • Start a family gift exchange instead of buying individual presents.
  • Give your time, talents, or services.
  • Make unique gifts at home.

Travel

The holidays are known as a hectic time to travel. COVID-19 restrictions, pandemic fears, and staffing shortages in the travel industry add another layer of stress. Fortunately, you can lower your stress levels by managing your expectations and planning ahead. Travel experts recommend these tips for tackling stress related to holiday travel:

  • Check current travel guidelines from the CDC.
  • Arrive at the airport early.
  • Expect long lines and have a plan for delays and cancellations.
  • Travel the way you feel most comfortable. This may mean taking extra time to drive if you are nervous about crowds at the airport, bus, or train station.
  • Practice deep breathing, listen to calming music, or read a book to reduce stress.
  • Be patient and understanding with travel industry staff and fellow travelers.

The holiday season does not have to be overwhelming. Taking care of your holiday mental health starts by taking steps to control or prevent stress for a more peaceful holiday season.