BY EMILY SULLIVAN, MA MFT, CPT
The standard greeting during November and December is “Happy Holidays,” but for many, the holiday season can be a struggle. Cold and gloomy weather brings a downer mood, family gatherings can be stressful and self-imposed high expectations lead to stress and exhaustion.
During the holidays, much focus is placed (paradoxically), on both not gaining weight and also showering one another with goodies. I offer you permission to put your focus elsewhere: Enjoy the holidays to the fullest AND cultivate strong mental wellness. Stronger mental health will leave you less prone to overextending yourself, emotional eating and other self-sabotaging behaviors. By prioritizing mental wellness, you cannot just survive, but thrive during the holidays.
Winter season ushers in shorter daylight hours and cold, often cloudy weather. People stay indoors more and tend to feel tired and sluggish.
Exercise is a powerful mood-enhancer and energizer, particularly when exercising outdoors (when feasible). You may not feel like going for a walk or to the gym when it’s cold, overcast or when your mood is “meh,” but exercise can really improve how you feel about yourself and how you deal with stress. Think of exercise as an essential vitamin that helps you function at your optimal level, both emotionally and physically.
The holiday season is one of giving, and it feels good to do things to show appreciation and care. However, when you give at the expense of your financial or mental well- being, you may be doing more harm than good.
Useful indicators that you are over-extending yourself are: feelings of stress and resentment, difficulty sleeping, significant changes in appetite or eating habits (overeating, for example, in response to stress). If you experience any of these, consider the following:
1. Prioritize the people who you really want to show appreciation for.
2. Then, consider what you’ll do to show that appreciation.
3. Now consider scaling way back on your original plan.
I list those steps only partly in jest. The truth is that a thoughtful gesture is really what counts, not something grand or expensive. A thoughtful note of appreciation can really mean a lot, and it saves you time and money. Your emotional and physical energy resources are finite, so prioritize ways of giving that matter most, and seeking ways to give that will be rejuvenating rather than draining.
DIFFICULT FAMILY GATHERINGS
Family gatherings hold the potential for immense joy and connection, but sometimes deep heartache and frustration. If you feel obligated to spend time with certain family members during the holidays, but you tend to get drained by the visits, think boundaries. ‘Boundaries’ are emotional or physical limits you put in place to preserve your optimal well-being. It is okay to take timeouts or to limit the amount of time spent with draining family members. Always be respectful, but when you feel yourself getting angry, resentful or overwhelmed, take a break.
If the holidays are a time of remembering and grieving for you, don’t fight it. Allow special time to celebrate and honor the person or relationship you lost and give space to feel your feelings. You may want to create a tradition of remembrance or a celebration of a person’s life during the holidays. Surround yourself with people who love you and who will support you during times of grief.
The holiday season is special and can be a time to slow down and connect with people you love. By cultivating mental wellness through exercise, intentional giving and enacting healthy boundaries, you can prevent overwhelm and stress, and experience a relaxing and rejuvenating holiday season.