With the holiday season about to kick off in earnest, we thought now would be a good time to talk about strategies for maintaining our mental health during this busy time of year. It’s important to remember that while some people can’t get enough seasonal decorations, music, and eggnog, others among us may be feeling the absence of a loved one or may simply find the blinking lights and non-stop festivities to be dizzying and overwhelming. Some of us celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanza or nothing at all and may feel alienated by the traditional Christmas imagery and traditions all around us. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum between listening to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” on repeat and thinking that January can’t get here soon enough, there are some timeless truths to keep in mind that can make the holidays as enjoyable as possible for you and the people around you.
Feeling the Blues?
If you find yourself feeling stressed or depressed during the holidays, one of the most helpful things you can do is to remind yourself that there are many very understandable reasons why you may be feeling this way. Assuming you live in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting shorter, which means there is less sunlight to buoy your spirits. The weather is getting wetter and colder, which can make getting around frustrating and uncomfortable. And then there is simply feeling overwhelmed with everything we feel like we need to be doing. There are lots of reasons why we might be feeling down over the holidays, but for most of us, these feelings will not last forever and will likely dissipate as life returns to normal and the days start getting longer again in the new year. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reminds us that for most people, the holiday blues are “temporary feelings of anxiety or depression during the holidays that can be associated with extra stress, unrealistic expectations, or even memories that accompany the season.” Regardless of what is causing a foul holiday mood, it’s important to reach out and find someone to talk to if you find yourself struggling at this time of year.
Of all the things that can put us in a funk during the holidays, having unrealistic expectations is something in our control that we can modify if we’re mindful enough. Do we really need to write and send 30 Christmas cards this year just because we did that last year? Do we need to work up a sweat in the kitchen making Grandma’s infamous cranberry relish even though nobody likes how it tastes? Do we need to try to make both Steve’s Ugly Sweater Christmas party *and* Jill’s White Elephant party just because they are on the same night? The answer, of course is “no,” although familial pressures can make it feel sometimes like we don’t have a choice. We don’t need to do any of these things if we don’t want to. Regardless of what expectations we or others have about how we should spend the holidays, we get to decide where to go and what to do and who we want to spend our time with, and it’s important to be mindful of this. Some years, we may be excited and in love with the season and happy to accept every party invitation sent our way. Other years we may be feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and would rather just stay inside and binge watch Netflix. While we obviously want to consider the feelings and desires of loved ones and friends when making decisions, it’s important to remember that there is no one right way to spend the holidays. We have more options and choices available to us than is sometimes readily apparent.
When my father was growing up, my Norwegian grandmother used to make the family a traditional Christmas dish called Flotegrot, a type of creamy, cinnamon porridge. To honor his mother and his Norwegian heritage, my Dad decided to recreate the tradition in our family, and many a Christmas eve was spent with my Mom and Dad hovering over the stove while the smell of cinnamon wafted through the house. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? There was just one problem: my brother and I didn’t particularly enjoy the dish and my parents hated making it because it was stressful and easy to burn if you weren’t careful. I still remember the Christmas my parents decided to ditch the tradition, and served my brother and me macaroni and cheese instead. We were thrilled to eat mac and cheese for dinner and my parents were noticeably more happy and relaxed that evening as well, and never again was Flotegrot served on Christmas eve in our house.
A quick Google search for “mental health holidays” or “healthy holidays” yields a predictable array of well-intentioned articles with titles such as “10 Tips for Surviving the Holidays,” “8 Tips for Mental Wellness During the Holidays,” and “9 Healthy Holidays Eating Strategies.” Most of these articles have useful tips and suggestions that are worth keeping in mind, but if you’re at all like I am, keeping all these lists in mind can feel overwhelming and like one more thing that I should be doing. What if rather than giving ourselves checklists of things to do and keep in mind, we simplify things as much as possible and just strive for some balance? One too many treats at the holiday party last night? Maybe follow that with a “health day” where you only eat whole foods and avoid anything processed. Too busy working, shopping, and visiting with friends to fit in some exercise one day? Maybe slow down a bit the next time you have a minute and go for a longer walk than you usually do and just let yourself meander. AHF Senior Director of Programs Michele Silverthorn finds that keeping up with her regular yoga routine during the holidays is extremely helpful for reducing stress and finding balance. “When there’s a lot of hustle and bustle, I find that my yoga routine helps me breathe through the stress. I try to take a few deep breaths before heading into a busy mall and another deep breath once I get back to the car before joining the traffic on the roads. It helps!” Finding balance in our lives is often easier said than done, especially during a busy time of year like the holidays, but it is possible if we’re mindful of the choices that are available to us.
There is no one template for how to enjoy or even just survive the holidays. A magical Christmas with the family one year may set us up for disappointment the next if we’ve put too much pressure on ourselves to recreate that magic. Despite our best intentions, we may find ourselves in a funk or not feeling as sociable as we would like to. Or we may end up having a delightful time with family and friends even though we went into the holidays feeling irritable and anxious. The point is that we don’t know how we are going to be feeling from moment to moment or from year to year. See if you can keep an open mind this holiday season and try to take care of yourself as you take care of others. As, Dr. Ken Duckworth, Medical Director for NAMI reminds us, “this is not an easy time of year for a lot of people. Be gentle with yourself.”
When in Doubt, Give
If you’ve tried everything you can think of to make the holidays less stressful and you still find yourself feeling a bit frazzled, think about shifting your focus away from yourself and your needs and focus on the needs of others. Research indicates that it truly is better to give than to receive, and there are numerous organizations in San Diego and Imperial Counties who work with underserved populations that you can give to this holiday season. Please take a look at our homepage at ahf.health to learn more about organizations in our region serving those under 250% of the federal poverty level, un/underinsured people, children, and the homeless. You may just find that the gift of giving does more than anything to provide perspective and help you keep your sanity during the holidays.
-Jonathan Dale, Communications Manager
Alliance Healthcare Foundation