‘Tis the season for joy, togetherness, and celebration – but also stress. Despite the festive, happy images we are bombarded with in the media, many people find the holidays a difficult time. Financial pressures, loneliness, shorter and darker days (yes, even for me in California) are just some of the factors that contribute to a rise in depression and anxiety during the holidays. Plus, this year may be particularly challenging as we continue to wrestle with the stresses of the pandemic. To make matters worse, those negative feelings are often exacerbated by the unhealthy habits so common during the holidays, like increased alcohol consumption, poor food choices, and overscheduling.
Make this Holiday Season Different
Start taking steps now to prevent holiday stress by prioritizing your health and well-being. Eating well, enjoying the company of friends and loved ones, and practicing self-care strategies that work for you can all help bring the holiday season back to its true meaning: a time of joy.
Here are some of my top strategies to enjoy a happy, healthy and stress-free holiday season this year:
1 – Delegate and be selective with activities.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you have to do everything on your own for a picture-perfect holiday season. Letting go of that expectation can actually lead to greater enjoyment and less stress, so don’t be afraid to ask others to contribute to big meals, encourage a healthy potluck style dinner or turn down a social invitation that doesn’t excite you. Setting healthy boundaries with your time and energy is important!
2 – Shop wisely.
Financial pressure is one of the top stressors at this time of year. Making a budget at the onset can help keep spending in check. Always remember that personal, meaningful gifts don’t have to be pricey – and are often more appreciated!
With supply chain difficulties and many shortages of goods predicted for this winter, shopping locally, or shopping online from local small business owners either directly or on Etsy, can also alleviate stress. Plus, you’ll have the satisfaction of supporting a small business owner.
Here are a few of my (previously) local shops to check out:
And a few of my (newly) local shops:
3 – Stick to your sleep schedule.
The relationship between stress and sleep goes two ways. When you’re stressed, it’s more difficult to sleep, and when you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re more likely to feel stressed. When we’re staying up later or missing sleep, we are not at our best – studies show it takes up to four days to recover from just one hour of missed sleep! Practice good sleep hygiene, including keeping regular hours, staying away from screens before bedtime, sleeping in a cooler room and limiting alcohol consumption to at least 2 hours before heading to bed.
4 – Build movement into your schedule.
Exercise is a proven way to reduce the harmful effects of stress on your body, but when you’re busy and stressed, it can be hard to fit it in. If exercise is part of your daily routine, don’t let the busy-ness of the holiday season get in the way!
Consciously blocking out time for fitness regardless of what you have to do that day, and prioritizing that time helps. So does combining movement with holiday social events, whether that means going for a walk together, planning a snowshoe party, or heading to a skating rink.
5 – Include nutrient dense foods and practice mindful eating.
It’s not surprising that studies find that many adults gain weight over the holidays, but you might be surprised to learn that even adults who plan to lose weight often end up gaining instead. Keep your expectations realistic and focus on eating mindfully, enjoying everything in moderation. Here are some tips for eating more mindfully:
- People often skip meals over the holidays, thinking that they’re compensating for indulging later, however, they end up eating more during their holiday events. A better strategy is to have healthy, satisfying food with plenty of protein, healthy fats and fiber before an event to stay on a regular eating schedule and prevent over-indulging. In other words, eat and apple in the car when you are on your way to a party!
- Throughout your meals, allow time between bites so your brain can more accurately measure when you’re full.
- When you are faced with a lot of treats, retain a mindful approach. Choose the treats you really enjoy, and savor them slowly.
Making smart food choices during the holiday season with plenty of nutrient-dense foods can also support your immune system to help prevent illness (and nobody wants to be sick right now!) Fresh produce, particularly brightly colored vegetables and citrus fruits, are high in vitamin C, which supports immunity. And foods high in antioxidants reduce inflammation – focus on herbal teas, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.
6 – Don’t forget to take care of your gut health.
The stress, potential depression, and sugary diets that many people face at this time of the year create an unfortunate trifecta leading to poor gut health. To protect your gut microbiome, focus on a wide variety of natural foods high in fiber. Bitter winter lettuces, like radicchio, have higher levels of pre-biotics than some other greens. That’s why I include radicchio in my Hormone Health Grocery Guide’s Winter Salad.
7 – Limit alcohol.
Another factor affecting gut health and immune health is alcohol. Studies show that alcohol consumption doubles during the holidays. Bear in mind that binge drinking carries many health risks, even if you’re not a heavy drinker over the rest of the year. Plus, excess alcohol consumption can sap your energy, contribute to depression, worsen PMS and cause more period cramps. Raise a glass for special occasions, but be mindful of what you drink.
Kombucha, mocktails and sparkling water with fruit are excellent festive substitutes. My favorite is a splash of pomegranate juice and fresh lime with sparkling water – at least it has the color of red wine!
8 – Practice gratitude and focus on the good.
Sometimes, we all need to slow down and recognize the good in our lives. Practicing gratitude is a proven way to improve your mental well-being, and can be as easy as taking a moment to thank people for simple acts. Some studies have connected a “gratitude journal,” in which participants recorded the things they were grateful for, with improved mental health and reduced depression. As this becomes a habit, you’ll start to notice the good around you more often, in essence shifting the way you view the world for the better.
My go-to gratitude journal is the 5 Minute Journal by Intelligent Change, which coincidentally, makes a great gift!
Lending Tree, 61% of Americans Are Dreading the Holidays Due to Spending, by Jacqueline Demarco
YouGov, Many Americans are Anticipating a Lonely Holiday Season, .by Jamie Ballard
National Alliance and Mental Illness, Mental Health and Holiday Blues
Suchecki D, Tiba PA, Machado RB. REM Sleep Rebound as an Adaptive Response to Stressful Situations. Front Neurol. 2012 Apr 2;3:41. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2012.00041. PMID: 22485105; PMCID: PMC3317042.
Madison A, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human-bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2019;28:105-110. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2019.01.01
Beverage Daily, Americans Double Their Drinking During the Holidays, by Beth Newhart
Cunha LF, Pellanda LC, Reppold CT. Positive Psychology and Gratitude Interventions: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Front Psychol. 2019;10:584. Published 2019 Mar 21. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00584