By Sarah Dabney, PLMHP
Christmas and New Year’s are days that most of us look forward to all year round, and they can provide an amazing shot-in-the-arm reminder that joy, peace, love, faith and family are the beating heart of life. But statistically, they are also the time of year when depression and suicidal ideation rise, when stress levels are high for emotional, physical and financial reasons, and when sicknesses like colds and flu get passed around, as well.
While no one is immune to pressure around this time of year, families with younger children can be particularly susceptible to the fever pitch surround the attempt to create magical, wonderful memories, have the perfect, glittering Christmas morning, survive on a diet of turkey, egg nog and fruit cake, and balance big changes in eating and sleeping schedules, not to mention time off from work and school. Life can seem like it’s just bulldozing on, and mental health issues are no respecter of holidays.
Some common thoughts are:
I’m too stressed out to really enjoy anything this year…which makes me more stressed.
The holidays just seem like more work instead of rest.
I’m actually dreading spending time with my family.
I’m not where I want to be in life, so it’s painful to go to these parties…I leave feeling like I didn’t really connect, like I was vague and fake.
I just want things to be like they used to.
Self-care can fall by the wayside during the holidays, to their detriment…not because we meant to let it go, but because the different demands on time and energy can simply derail what we usually do to take care of our mind, heart, and body. Maintaining a loving connection with our hearts and bodies is the way to maximize what we give and receive, and to let the season be what it is meant to be—one of a renewal of hope.
Some practical ways to do that this year might include the following:
- Listen—Ask your body (and your family) what it really needs this Christmas. Not every holiday season has to honor the same traditions. Do you need time to grieve, to leave the decorations in storage? Or is it a year to start new traditions, welcome new family members? Are you more hungry for connection or peace and quiet…and in what ratio? What is the gift you would love to receive this year?
- Simplify and Prioritize—Sit and down and assess which of the usual Christmas social functions are life-giving, and which ones are life-sucking. Do you love making Christmas cookies for the church program…or do you just feel you should? You only have a certain amount of energy to spend, and you have to care for your body by identifying where you would really prefer to spend it. If you’ve already said “yes” to too many things (or the wrong ones) this year, consider setting a boundary with yourself and calling them back to say “no” graciously, or make a plan around limiting your “yeses” next year.
- Check Out Your Options—Some individuals have the opposite challenge around the holidays: loneliness. Call around to your local churches, community centers and soup kitchens or homeless shelters, and see what activities you could be involved in and connect with new relationships. You are not the only one with these feelings. Someone needs your gift of presence and conversation this year just as much as you need theirs.
- Monitor Alcohol and Sugar Intake—Remember that alcohol is a depressant, and can increase feelings of depression and grief. A glass of wine with Christmas dinner is a wonderful thing, but consider leaning toward extra glasses of water instead of a refill for the sake of your emotions and your energy level, and to help flush out the extra salt and sugar holiday foods usually contain. A daily serving of leafy greens will also help balance the holiday diet, particularly if you are sensitive to certain kinds of carbs and sugars or dairy, and tend to feel that fog and malaise the day after eating a lot of dessert.
- Keep Exercising—As the weather gets colder, it gets harder to go for a jog in the neighborhood or even get to the gym. But this is precisely the time of year when you need to do so. Maintain good sleep and energy/mood levels by being faithful to do at least some light cardio every other day, or Pilates in front of the TV. It’s also a good way to work off the adrenaline of tense conversations or misunderstandings.
- Schedule in Blank Space—In the midst of increased social activity, the need for down time can be overlooked, but quiet intervals during the holidays (an hour or two between coming home from work and going out to a party, twenty minutes here and there to creep away to your room in the packed house and have a quiet moment, or a whole day a week to regroup, heat up leftovers and take naps) go a long way toward ensuring that we can actually enjoy the holiday cheer, rather than just enduring it. Unless this blank space makes it into your planner/Google calendar, you set yourself up to go non-stop until after New Year’s…because there is always something else to say “yes” to!
- Allow for Lower Expectations—It’s OK for this year to be a little less magical. It’s OK for it to be hard. It won’t always be, but for now, it just is. The important thing is to be gentle with yourself, with where you are. To both sit and breathe with the hard moments, and to catch the great moments in your hands and enjoy them while they last. To be aware of both.
Holidays aren’t meant for burnout. The wonderful thing about practicing our own self-care is that it gives others permission to do the same! Allow your children, your roommate, your in-laws to notice you choosing to make the most of the season by not trying to consume it indiscriminately. It’s possible that your example might bring them the same relief.
Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash