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Tips to make the holidays and winter months less stressful

While we enjoy the holidays, it can be a stressful time for many of us. After the holidays, we settle in for winter months and shorter days, leaving some of us feeling unmotivated.

I reached out to Christine Rose, LCSW-C, who was kind enough to answer some questions I had on how to take care of ourselves during the holidays and winter months. As you will read below, she has written a beautiful blog in response to my questions. I think her insight and suggestions will be so helpful. I hope you get as much from it as I have.

Autum’s arrival heralds the seasonal change with a dazzling display, a fiery palette of red, orange, and gold. While we enjoy the fall panorama, the fresh, crisp air tinged with the smell of wood smoke, and the taste of apple treats, our thoughts may wander to the upcoming holidays.  Many of us look forward to festive gatherings with family and friends. For others, though, the festivities of the season are less than enjoyable, evoking considerable stress.  Holidays challenge us for various reasons such as the stirring of nostalgic or painful memories, the demands or difficulties of navigating family gatherings, or the financial strain of gift giving and added expenses.  Feelings of anxiety and depression, along with more subtle emotional responses like apathy, fatigue, irritability, loneliness, and grief can emerge, sometimes beneath our awareness.  We’re often so hurried to complete our list of holiday tasks that we do not notice the discomfort that has crept in until we slow down long enough for it to come into focus.  Other symptoms of distress can manifest as compulsive spending, compulsive eating or overindulging in alcohol or recreational drug use.  All of these symptoms reflect a need to dedicate attention to caring for our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being as we approach the season.

Addressing the need for self-care is a necessity before, during, and after the holidays as we move into winter.  Looking more closely, here are some suggestions for navigating the season with our health and happiness in mind.

Pre-Holiday Preparation

Intention –  A great question to help prepare for the approaching season is to ask ourselves “How do I want to observe and participate in this holiday season?”  Our response to this important question can set our intention for, and the tone of how, we experience this time of gatherings.  Focusing on this intention can help us offset the psychological pressure others may unknowingly foist upon us, and restore a sense of agency during this time of cultural or traditional expectations.

Priorities – Priortising the events and traditions that hold the most meaning for us can usher in welcome clarity during the whirlwind busyness of the season.  Identifying our own tolerances helps us maintain clarity as we s ee how to implement our holiday intention.  Furthermore, honoring our tolerances can mean establishing personal boundaries around what feels comfortable for us and what does not as it pertains to holiday activities.  Boundaries can take the form of agreeing to attend only a few traditional events instead of all with which we are presented, thereby allowing for some psychological space during a season that can become overwhelming.  Gift-giving stress can be simplified by deciding upon a budget-friendly amount we can comfortably afford, and communicating our comfort level in gifting with loved ones accordingly.

Mindfulness – Meditation practice can be a valuable tool for helping us to ground and prepare ourselves for the flurry of the season.  Allowing for a brief respite from having to think or plan and to simply be present with our breath is a gift we can give ourselves all through the year.  One of the many benefits of meditation is the rest it offers to our sympathetic nervous system, which when triggered can activate the fight or flight response. If regular meditation practice is not a usual part of the day,  the holidays are actually a good time to begin exploring how to incorporate a simple five to 15 minute daily session.  

For those new to meditation, Insight Timer is an app which has a free option,  and is quite user-friendly.  On Spotify and other streaming platforms, there is also a wonderful mindfulness podcast from Tara Brach, Ph.D., providing useful guidance for beginners, as well as those more experienced with meditation.  She also has a few books, such as Radical Acceptance, that are well worth further exploration.

During the Holidays

Support – Feelings of isolation around the holidays can lead to apathy and despair at a time when it may seem everyone else has a sense of belonging.  Reaching out to trusted family and friends, a therapist, or a support group can relieve some of the emotional burden we carry at the holidays.  We often do not realise that others may be happy to hear from us, or that we are among many others who are experiencing the same disconnectedness.  Feeling heard and seen by another reminds us that we are of value and there are people who care and willing to help.  

Socialising – Holiday events with several family or friends in attendance frequently require much psychological energy and can prove to be most exhausting.  If larger gatherings stir more anxiety than enjoyment, there are some options to mitigate stress.  Decide upon a length of time that feels comfortable and reasonable to stay at a function or extended event, and communicate this to your family members, your host, or other guests as appropriate.  This may necessitate traveling in separate vehicles to the function, but may be worth the minor inconvenience in order to enjoy being together with others while maintaining psychological well-being.  If holiday travels require lodging, staying at a hotel rather than at the host’s residence can provide a safe sanctuary to decompress after a time of social activity, thus offsetting the added expense.  

Post-Holidays and Wintering

Finally, the time to relax has arrived.  Hopefully, we will be able to reflect upon our holidays with positivity and some joy.  Even better would be to feel that the experience reflected our intention and preferences rather than accommodating those of others or cultural expectations. After the flurry of festivities, we can then turn to face the changing of seasons to winter.

Frosty days provide a timely opportunity to slow down and shift to more quiet, introspective activities.  Luxuriating in personal projects like reading, writing, musical or artistic endeavors can be a psychological refuge and provide emotional gratification while enduring the chilly, shorter days of winter.  Remember to also tend to personal or group connections to help nurture a feeling of belonging during this time of wintering indoors.

Shorter days unfortunately mean less sunlight for us to enjoy being outdoors.  As with meditation, dedicating time to be outside in a natural setting can do wonders for improvidng our mood by increasing neurotransmitter production.  For this to occur, we need at minimum  15-20 minutes a day of natural sunlight.  (UV light boxes are an alternative, if necessary.) This natural light is essential to synthesizing vitamin D  in our bodies and supporting neurotransmitter production for psychological resiliency.  Our wintertime vitamin D levels are often below optimum, so having our levels checked by a physician can determine if supplementation is needed.  

Movement and exercise are essential components for weathering the winter months successfully.  Pursuing an enjoyable activity that is convenient and integrated into a daily schedule can help give us an endorphin release, along with balancing neurotransmitter levels to support sleep and positive mood regulation during winter.  Coupling an activity with being outdoors in a natural setting is best, if at all possible.  Experiencing the natural world on a cold, crisp day can act as a natural sedative and mood uplifter.

Along with exercise, good nutrition is a proven pillar in fortifying healthy neurological function and resiliency.  Neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are built of protein molecules, and nerve cells need healthy fat molecules to maintain functional integrity.  Providing these dietary building blocks, along with getting plenty of fresh produce and complex carbohydrates, while limiting sources of refined sugar, is more necessary to supporting a strong nervous system than many of us realise.

Last but not least, there is the importance of sleep, which regulates the production of melatonin that assists in regulating our bodily circadian rhythms.  Sleep also helps regenerate parts of the brain so it functions properly to serve us well.  Sustaining a regular sleep schedule that provides seven to nine hours of sleep is a critical factor for mood resiliency, especially during winter.  Good sleep hygiene includes having a dark, cool, and quiet place to rest comfortably.  Everyone feels better after a good night’s sleep.

Winter is with us for three solid months each year, so having a flexible plan for taking very good care of ourselves is of the utmost importance to emerge gracefully in spring.  Attending to our physical, emotional, and psychological needs while being willing to stay in touch and connected with family and friends will help ensure that the holidays and winter do not have to be a cold and lonely time. Enjoy the season and  remember that brighter days are ahead!

To connect with Christine Rose, LCSW-C, pls contact her at christinerosetherapy.com 

I hope that we all enjoy the holidays and find the winter months a time of self-care.

Valerie Turner, LMT, PTA, freelance writer, health and wellness blogger
812 Toll House Ave
Frederick, MD 21701

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