Surviving the Holiday Season

Humantold November 15, 2021

October to January is an expectation-filled time of year. Getting through the holidays with your mental well-being intact requires a special flavor of self-care.

And just like that, they’re here—the holidays always come as a shock. Depending on your situation, you may feel any combination of excitement, worry, fear, stress, anxiety, and more. It can even be traumatic for some. ‘Tis the season for mixed emotions. With everyone in your life expecting so much, stressors are bountiful, and triggers are abundant. 

Accepting Feeling Imbalanced 

As many of us turn to self-help resources, meditation apps, and advice from loved ones to find support over these months, the word “balance” frequently pops up. Wellness trends inundate us with the never-ending search for “balance,” like a Black Friday scramble for the perfect gift—desperate, frustrating, and rarely fulfilling. How are we supposed to find balance during the holidays when everything can feel so imbalanced? 

During the holidays, people are often expected to:  

  • travel
  • socialize
  • eat more 
  • be happy
  • drink alcohol
  • spend money
  • spend time with family
  • change schedules
  • see people we rarely see
  • have someone to celebrate with

Holiday expectations are significant contributors to the sense that you are imbalanced. It’s understandable if the holidays make you squeamish, don’t feel guilty. Now, there’s also a pandemic on top of all this, which drastically complicates all these factors even more. 

For those who don’t have as many friends or family as we would like, the holidays amplify loneliness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of people report feeling holiday blues. At the same time, Mental Health America found that seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—previously known as seasonal depression—affects around 5% of adults each year. 

The season isn’t all bad. It can be an opportunity to connect with loved ones and recalibrate priorities. Accepting this time of year’s imbalance can be a relief and even empowering. Many of the self-care tactics that are helpful with holiday stress are also beneficial for coping with the pandemic’s mental toll. 

So, what does accepting imbalance through self-care mean in practical terms?

Holiday Triggers: Make a List (Only Check It Twice if You Feel Like It)

Identify specific triggers and stressors that have previously come up during the holidays. Take time to reflect—narrow down the causes and effects of your uneasy feelings toward gatherings, people, expectations, COVID, or anything else that bothers you. Even if you have just a few minutes on the subway, that works. Doing so can help you mentally process emotions and start thinking about what you need to cope.

Secondly, prioritize self-care, but avoid “I should/I should’ve” self-talk. There are enough expectations on you, don’t throw more on your plate by turning “self-care” obligations into anxiety-laden to-dos. Self-care is a lens or an approach to improve mental health, not another box to check.  

When we feel overwhelmed, it’s easy to fall back on unhealthy habits. Throwing your hands up in defeat and self-medicating with rum punch isn’t what “accepting the holidays’ imbalance” is about either. It’s a focus on managing stressors, healing, and staying positive—even when life feels out of your control. 

The following advice (not must-dos) offers a practical approach to accepting imbalance through self-care practices. 

Emotionally Prepare for Seeing Friends and Family 

Except for marriage, we rarely get to choose our family members, and these life-long relationships can be the most complex, testing situations in our lives. Family might trigger a lifetime’s worth of emotion. All these feelings come ringing in while there’s an expectation to “enjoy yourself.” 

To emotionally prepare for the holiday season (or any time of year) The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz is a powerful read. The book applies to any belief system (or lack thereof)—offering valuable interpersonal tools for dealing with difficult friends, family, and other challenging periods in life. 

Avoid Holiday Drinking: Don’t Drink Too Much or at All

The holiday season is notorious for leading people to drink more than usual or start drinking after trying to get sober. Maybe you don’t have a problem with alcohol, but be mindful of people who do. Avoid being that person who says, “just one won’t hurt” to someone who is struggling with addiction unbeknownst to you.

Then there’s a rarely talked about subsect of alcohol users. The holidays can really flare up for them, and there aren’t a lot of statistics about them either—we are talking about responsible drinkers that have one too many hard eggnogs and tell in-laws what they really think of them. A Responsible-Drinkers-Except-for-that-One-Time Anonymous group doesn’t exist. 

If you are going to drink, try to practice moderation. In the process, you might have to turn down beverages, and it helps to have an answer ready if peer pressure persists. It’s unfortunate that anyone has to make excuses not to drink, but alcohol is a significant cultural component for many gatherings this time of year. 

These tips for drinking responsibly from the Mayo Clinic can support you. If you’re dealing with alcohol addiction, here are some resources to help.   

Holiday Self Care: Eat When and What Works for You

Healthy eating is incredibly tricky over the holidays. It’s a delicate dance to take care of yourself while not disappointing others with your diet or preferences. Like passing on more drinks, it’s helpful to have what you’re going to say prepared in your head. Just be kind to yourself, whether that means cutting back or enjoying a well-earned indulgence. 

There are countless resources dedicated to this topic, but to get you started, these are fun yet educational reads:  

Make Time for Yourself and the People You Love

Self-care is invaluable all year round, but many of us need even more during the holidays. Yet, schedules are tight. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, it isn’t easy to treat others with kindness, too. Pencil self-care into your schedule if you can. 

Healthy activities like sleep, exercise, and meditation won’t just happen when your calendar is packed, so carve out that “me time.” If you’re already rolling your eyes at the assumption that you would ever have a spare moment during the holidays, moderation is an excellent source of solace as well.

“Take care of yourself” is an obvious and resounding theme with self-care, but there’s a small caveat to this. Be careful not to confuse self-care with selfishness

Bailing on a family meal because you’d rather binge-watch a streaming series isn’t necessarily good for anyone’s well-being. Our culture pushes rugged individualism, which can lead to an overbearing “what-about-me” approach to people. Harvard research reminds us that good relationships with family and friends are vital to a long, healthy life. Avoid regret. Time with loved ones is therapeutic when done respectfully and thoughtfully. 

That said, if you feel overwhelmed, don’t force yourself to attend a party that will trigger addiction, depression, or trauma. 

For those managing social anxiety, the holidays are particularly challenging. If the line between self-care and selfishness sounds blurry, it is (another example of accepting imbalance). Our relationships—especially family—are a never-ending source of complicated life lessons and don’t come with a guidebook. All we can do is our best. 

Do Something for Someone Else

Volunteering is a reminder of what’s really important in life. It can be a humbling experience that gives you a healthy perspective. Even if you aren’t particularly religious or spiritual, many organizations provide no-strings-attached opportunities to volunteer, donate, and help people in need this time of year. Plus, volunteering can be a way to bridge gaps and spend time with a religious family member who doesn’t share the same beliefs as you.  

Research continues to prove that doing something positive for others is good for your health, too. One study went as far as to frame volunteering as a “public health intervention,” citing its positive impact on preventing depression by improving feelings of self-worth. Psychology Today even shows that donating to charitable causes activates the same parts of the brain as sex and monetary gains. 

Have an Exit Strategy

A holiday exit strategy is a superb tool to approach post-holiday doldrums with your well-being as a priority. In January, February, and March, everything can feel dreary whether you enjoyed the previous season’s festivities or not. It’s harder to get sufficient vitamin D than usual, and it’s a typical time for the onset of SAD as well. 

You don’t have to wait until the first week of the year to plan how you’ll emotionally survive winter. Think about steps you can start taking now to be focused, happy, and healthy. 

Perhaps drop the New Year’s resolutions in the spirit of not making self-care an anxiety-inducing to-do list. Focus on positive activities because they make you feel good, and do them only when you feel like it. 

As for coping with the depths of winter, have you cuddled up to the notion of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-guh). 

The Nordic philosophy embraces coziness, warmth, and self-care to get through short, dark days. Chances are you practice this a bit already. If you’ve ever made a plan to stay in, drink some tea, light a candle, and read a book—essentially, that’s hygge. It doesn’t have to be expensive or too new-age. 

Though it's an old practice in countries like Norway and Denmark, it’s catching on in the U.S. as a counter to our culture’s tendency to push us to remain constantly busy and delay self-care. The popularity of hygge makes it accessible and easy to learn more about online as well. 

Humantold hopes that the holidays are a healthy time for you and that you find the resources and opportunities you need to take care of yourself. If you ever need someone to listen, we’re here. 

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