If your holidays are anything like mine, the past few weeks have been a whirlwind of shopping, letter writing, baking, traveling, parties, and so on – to the point that you may have found yourself wishing (as I did!) that December was over and you could get back to normal life. Holidays bring with them many wonderful and enjoyable experiences, but sometimes those can get lost in the hustle and bustle. Air travel, shipping deadlines, financial worries, and difficult family gatherings can take their toll on your mental health. And here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve been dealing with a seemingly unending stream of dark, rainy days – not the sort of thing that brightens your mood!
I sometimes fall into the trap of feeling like I should be happy – because it’s the holidays! Joy and goodwill! – and then getting more stressed out simply because I’m stressed. Sooner or later I manage to remind myself that my body and brain don’t somehow function better because of a change in routine; far from it! It can be challenging to fit it in, but self care becomes even more important when you’re adding so many extras to your daily life. Self care looks a little different for everyone, but here are a few ideas that might help you find some peace on earth.
First things first, give yourself permission to be stressed/sad/lonely/insert your state of mind here. Your feelings are what they are; telling yourself you shouldn’t feel a certain way isn’t going to change your response. (As one of my professors used to say, stop shoulding on yourself!) An upsetting emotion is your body and mind’s way of telling you that you need something different. Listen to your own wisdom!
Holiday traditions are a wonderful way of feeling connected to friends and family, but they can also elevate your stress level in a big way! It’s easy to get the message that the holidays just won’t be right unless your decorations are beautiful, house is spotless, cards are mailed in time, presents are perfectly selected, children are angelically behaved, and cookies are Food Network masterpieces – and that’s an easy recipe for disappointment. A picture perfect holiday only exists in magazine ads. Try to keep your expectations reasonable, and if you find yourself up at midnight carefully placing each cinnamon red hot button on your gingerbread cookies because “we always do it this way,” ask yourself if the tradition has become the end and not the means. (I promise, the cookies will taste good even if they’re a little messy.)
On a similar note, we often feel obligations to go to every holiday party or family gathering for fear of disappointing someone. We end up putting everyone else first and not taking care of ourselves. Think about which parties you will really enjoy, and prioritize those – and remember to schedule yourself some downtime, too. If you find yourself scheduling something because you have to, ask yourself what the consequences will be if you skip – and how much impact that will have. For example, if you don’t swing by the office holiday party for at least an hour, will it look bad to your boss? That could have some negative and long lasting consequences; maybe you want to make an effort to be there. But if you don’t go carol singing with your second cousin once removed who you don’t like anyway, and then she refuses to speak to you again, well, that might be a risk you’re willing to take! Obviously not every decision is going to be so easy and obvious, but do spend the time to think about why you feel the obligation and what it will cost you to meet it – or not.
Moods aren’t all in your head – your physical body and its condition has a great deal to do with how you feel. Thanksgiving to New Years sometimes feels like a six week roller coaster of rich foods, sweets and alcohol. Enjoy the chance to indulge, but keep tabs on how it impacts your mood. If you tend to crash hard after eating sugar, or get serious heartburn from rich foods, it might help to pick something that won’t leave you miserable the next day. Alcohol is a depressant, so watching your intake can help keep you smiling. Exercise, on the other hand, is a powerful antidepressant, so don’t drop your workout routine! If you take medication for any health conditions, be sure to keep to your scheduled dosage. Finally, do your best to get enough sleep. Sometimes it seems like the last thing we have time for, but you’ll be more efficient when you’re well rested.
Neuroscientist Rick Hanson coined this phrase “take in the good” to describe a practice of looking for the positive. Our brains are evolutionarily hard wired to hold onto negative outcomes as a way of protecting ourselves. It might have kept our ancient ancestors alive, but it can sure hurt our moods today! The good news is that through practice, it’s possible to retrain your brain to new habits – habits of positive perspective. His technique involves noticing good experiences and letting them really sink into you – check out the links above for details! Positive perspective can help shift your immediate negative responses – for example, I had to head to the post office earlier this week, and unsurprisingly the line was out the door. At first I was frustrated and annoyed by the time I’d have to spend, but as I looked around at the other customers and their many packages, I reflected that people were willing to spend a lot of effort to send holiday cheer and love across the miles. I was able to see the people ahead of me in line not as obstacles, but as symbols of love and connection.
Last but certainly not least, don’t try to do this alone! If the holidays have you down, whatever the reason, reach out to people you trust to be there for you. Don’t isolate yourself; maintain your connections to your support network. Whether you see a friend for coffee or just send a text between errands, it’s important to reach out. Don’t be afraid to ask for support if you need it; being vulnerable isn’t weakness! On the flip side, don’t surround yourself with people you know get you down; maintain healthy boundaries and say no with conviction.
In the end, there are lots of ways to practice self care – keep trying until you find the techniques that work best for you. The most important thing is to listen to yourself and to be willing to prioritize your own needs. I wish you joyful and serene holidays!