Self-Care: A Holiday Survival Guide

Holidays Signal The Need For Self-Care

Winter Months Can Be Stressful

Cool weather, pumpkin spice everything, and anxiety about the holidays…Winter is here!

Why is it that the fall and winter months can bring up feelings of dread or anxiety for some people? Shouldn’t we be excited about the holidays and spending time with loved ones? Sometimes the “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts” around meeting certain family obligations leave us feeling overwhelmed.  We all “should” ourselves from time to time, but that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless.

Stressful Relationships

The reality is that this time of year can be challenging for a number of reasons, and all these reasons are normal and healthy. A difficult or estranged relationship with family members or friends, a reminder of a trauma, financial concerns, or feelings of loneliness can all contribute to a sense of dread or unhappiness around this time of year. In addition, the first time a holiday is celebrated following the passing of a loved one can feel especially difficult, and there may be uncertainty around how to navigate continuing or not continuing certain traditions.

Holiday Stress

Financial strain around the holidays can also be a contributing factor that can be compounded if you need to travel and/or you feel pressure to match the monetary value of gifts with more “financially-stable” relatives.   Perhaps you are struggling in your relationship with your romantic partner. The anticipated long, uninterrupted time alone with them can cause stress that feels unmanageable.  As we all know, religion and politics are usually sensitive topics to be avoided in groups, but in today’s political climate, it can feel like trying to navigate a minefield.

Maybe the relative you thought shared your political beliefs and felt like a safe person actually doesn’t and now you’re left in awkward silence as the turkey and stuffing gets passed around and you’re stuck wondering how on earth you’re related to these people. What is it about family that can be so stressful for some of us? Is it the expectations that they have of us? Is it the expectations we have of them? Sometimes the people that know us the best are the ones that we show our worst to, and that doesn’t always feel good. I don’t think I know anyone that has the picture-perfect, Hallmark family that never argues and that always expresses their opinions in respectful and appropriate ways. If you are in one of those families, I would love to talk to you. And maybe study you a bit.

Seasonal Changes

Aside from stressful family interactions, there are also some very real changes that start to happen when it gets darker earlier in the evenings. Perhaps you’ve heard of the “winter blues” – maybe you’re starting to experience them now. But for some folks, these “winter blues” may feel more intense and sometimes debilitating. A common diagnosis during the fall and winter months is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is an episode of depression with a seasonal pattern that impacts between 1% to 10% of the population and is more commonly found in women. Symptoms can include feelings of sadness, social isolation, frequent crying, irritability, lack of motivation, craving carbohydrates which can lead to weight gain, and fatigue. It is thought that the decreased amount of sunlight that occurs during the winter months can lead to a disruption in our biological clock and circadian rhythm, resulting in changes in our serotonin and melatonin levels.

Coping Strategies

Seasonal Changes Bring Emotional Challenges

So what do we do about all of this? Setting boundaries for yourself is a good place to start, either through saying “no” to family events, or saying “yes” to self-care and prioritizing your mental health needs. If you’re somebody who knows that they struggle around this time of year, consider scheduling routine check-ins with yourself to assess how you’re feeling – and don’t forget to build in time off! Time away from others, time away from social media, and time to recharge your batteries. For those of you who experience SAD, research has supported the use of a natural light lamp as being helpful in combating symptoms – but talk to your health provider for a recommendation! There are a lot out there and you want to make sure you’re getting the one that’s right for you.  If you think you may be experiencing more intense symptoms of depression, please reach out to your doctor or go to your local emergency room if you are feeling unsafe.This is the time to start being mindful of potential sources of stress looming on the horizon!

Ways to take care of yourself during the holidays:

Self-Care Is An Effective Coping Strategy
  1. Give yourself permission to say no to family gatherings that you might find difficult. If that doesn’t feel possible, then try to limit the time you spend at them.
  2. Engage in more self care than you usually would – this can look like reading a book, enjoying a cup of tea, meditating, completing a long-overdue task, or unplugging from the Internet for a while.
  3. Don’t pressure yourself to spend more money than you are comfortable with in an effort to show your loved ones you care.
  4. Allow yourself to not feel excited about the holidays, and explore activities that do bring you joy.
  5. Pay attention to your levels of stress, irritability, feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or helplessness. If you notice an increase in these symptoms, reach out for help from a mental health professional who can work with you on identifying sources of stress and how to effectively cope with them.

By Anusha N. Zechella, Ph.D.