“The most wonderful time of the year.” Unfortunately, that’s not the experience for many people during the holiday season. There is often an increase in depressive feelings as time and money resources are drained and people struggle with recent or unresolved loss. Self-care is vital year round, but even more so during this stressful season. Many find themselves dealing with external stressors which includes environmental factors or events as well as internal stressors which stem from maladaptive personal behaviors, traits or lifestyle choices.
Who’s at risk?
Although no one is completely immune from stress, there are a few types of people that are at a higher risk than others and need a little extra self-care.
- Perfectionists bring on internal stress because they expect every holiday meal to be absolutely perfect and are on a mission to ensure everyone on the gift list receives exactly the right gift (which is also wrapped perfectly!). Although there is nothing wrong with a desire to excel in any area of life, when perfection becomes a requirement, problems may emerge.
- Closely tied to perfectionists are chronic worriers who are anxious about every possible negative outcome. There are definitely some legitimate areas of concern such as the number of drunk drivers leaving holiday parties but worrying can be extreme.
- The elderly, and particularly elderly males, are frequently more isolated from family and friends which puts them at risk.
- A natural group is those who are grieving, even if the death or loss they’ve experienced is not recent. There may be painful memories or feelings that are triggered this time of year.
Symptoms to watch
Although people respond to stress differently based on their resilience and personality, there are some common symptoms to stay alert for. Being cognizant of these signs is a proactive approach to reducing stress.
- Physical symptoms include headaches, muscle tension, shortness of breath, fatigue, appetite changes, and disruption in sleep patterns.
- Mental symptoms occur when a person has trouble thinking clearly, cannot concentrate, talks negatively and uses poor judgment.
- Emotional responses manifest as a sense of feeling out of control, nervous, anxious, hopeless, or angry.
- Negative behavioral changes include aggression, excessive use of substances, and other compulsive behaviors.
So what can you do to take care of yourself?
Start with gratitude. Rather than complaining about your holiday work party, be thankful you have a job. Instead of dreading time with your sibling’s spouse who drinks a bit too much at parties, be grateful that he or she is wonderful to your sibling the rest of the year. When your mind goes towards a negative, find a way to flip that around.
Just say no. Although there are obligations you feel the need to attend because it’s related to work or family, it is okay to say ‘no’ sometimes. We don’t want to be a scrooge during the holidays, but if you’re an introvert like me, you also don’t like to be overscheduled. It’s about being mindful of your own needs.
Get restful exercise. Aim for some exercise that is not related to shopping or cleaning. Yes, you can certainly get your walk in while doing those activities, but also take some time to walk outside — preferably in the sunshine — and without a headset.
Reduce exposure to stimulation. During the holiday, there are more sounds, sights, smells, and movement than any other time of year. Drive your car with the radio turned off. Change the Christmas tree lights to a steady glow, rather than blinking. Detox from technology for a period of time.
Be open to new traditions. After you experience loss, the holidays are a very different experience. Instead of putting up Christmas decorations, you can enjoy a festival in town or view the lights in your community. Serve someone else especially if you will be alone on holidays. It takes the focus off your loneliness when you’re investing in someone else.
Pay attention to nutrition. It’s the time of the year when good health habits seem to go out the window! There’s no need to deprive yourself but making good decisions about what you eat can impact your mood. Be aware of your mental blocks, such as feeling it’s the “only time of the year” you get to eat something or this dish “reminds me of home,” “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” The list goes on. Just as you should eat something before grocery shopping, eat something small before an event so you don’t overdo it. And be the one to bring something healthy. One of my go-to items is a veggie tray. It’s inexpensive to buy one and guarantees I’ll have something healthy too much on.
It’s no surprise that this can be an especially tough season which is why proactive self-care can help you get through it. Or if things are smooth in your life, these tips will help you enjoy it even more. And remember self-care happens all year long — not just the holidays.