9 Ways You Can Protect Your Well-Being During the Winter Holidays
Ah, holidays. There’s nothing quite like bonding with your extended family over mashed potatoes and turkey while your in-laws make judgmental comments about your outfit. We all celebrate the winter holiday season differently, but if there’s one custom we can all relate to, it’s the annual tradition of attending social gatherings you could do without at any other time of the year.
But Christmas doesn’t have to tank your mental health. Whether you’re currently in treatment for a mental illness or just bracing yourself for a season of mental stress, there’s a lot you can do to protect your well-being. Here are some of the most doable ways you can advocate for yourself and those close to you during one of the most stressful times of the year.
1. Check in With Your Care Providers
Try to get a jump on the holidays by being proactive.
- Make sure your therapy sessions are booked in advance, preferably through December and into January. (And maybe strategically place those sessions around particular dates you know will be stressful.)
- If you take medication, handle getting refills well in advance so you don’t risk running out if you get hit with a surprise snowmageddon or end up needing more benzodiazepines than usual.
- Those prone to seasonal depression might also want to talk to their prescriber about changing their medication. It’s not uncommon to increase your dosage during the winter, so don’t feel sheepish about bringing it up if you think that’s worth considering
- Note when your providers will be out of town or unavailable.
2. Prioritize Your Wellness Routine
The holidays have a way of throwing our schedules completely for a loop. That goes double if you’re traveling, taking time off work, have kids, or are spending the holidays alone.
Some of that’s inevitable, so you want to take any hiccups or lapses in your routines in stride. But to whatever extent you can, keep doing the stuff that makes you feel like yourself.
- If you know you get cranky if you miss a workout, take time to get moving every day, even if you won’t have access to the same gym equipment at home or can’t commit as much time every day.
- Try keeping the same sleep schedule you’re used to.
- Keep an eye on your alcohol intake. Alcohol is a depressant, so it can mess with your moods. And a perpetual holiday hangover can tire you out and put you at risk of getting sick if you’re not giving your body enough time to recover.
- If there are any activities you normally do that make a big difference for your mental health, keep doing them.
- Most people indulge during the holidays. There’s no need to feel sheepish about enjoying your favorite Christmas cookies or an extra serving of turkey. The key is to add in fiber-rich, nutrient-dense foods to make sure your body’s getting the nutrients it needs to keep you feeling well. A few easy suggestions:
- Grab a green juice to sip after a grocery run
- Serve yourself an extra scoop of veggies
- Drink herbal tea to soothe and rehydrate
- Be the person to bring a veggie or fruit side dish to a potluck
- If anyone offers you leftovers, claim the lean meats and roasted vegetables
3. Beef Up Your Mental Health Support
This time of year can be a good time to add in a few non-invasive holistic treatments. The key is to only add new things if they’re 1) easy and 2) are unlikely to have any negative side effects. A few of our favorite ideas:
- Start taking a probiotic
- Take a vitamin D supplement (low vitamin D levels can make depression and mood symptoms worse)
- Talk to your doctor before you start taking any supplement, just to make sure you’re a good candidate and that it’s safe for you
- Talk to your doctor about starting a multivitamin, especially if you know you suffer when your diet suffers
- Try light therapy, a low-risk treatment that’s been shown to help some people as much as medication or therapy
- Set aside five minutes a day to meditate
That Includes Social Support, Too
Feeling emotionally supported is just as important as supporting your physical well-being. Sometimes it pays to have a friend or family member on speed dial. If you know your office Christmas party is always a nightmare, tell someone ahead of time so they know to be available if you need them. This is great for venting, creating an excuse to step out for a break (“So sorry, my sister really needs to talk right now!”), or texting them snarky gifs to blow off steam while you mingle with that one coworker. You know the one.
If you can’t think of anyone you feel comfortable reaching out to, you don’t have to go it alone. A helpline or even social media can help fulfill this need, too.
4. Schedule a Mental Health Day
Holidays can feel like a contest to see who can do the most. If you tend to get sucked into that contest, set aside a day to let your hair down. Do a solo activity you enjoy, indulge in personal time, or take care of any big errands that will be a relief to complete.
And if your mental health day just so happens to conflict with a social engagement or holiday obligation you didn’t want to deal with anyway? Aw, darn! Looks like you just found an excuse to opt out. You’re all booked that day. *wink wink*
5. Keep An Eye Out for New Mental and Emotional Symptoms
Wintertime and major holidays are both big times for new symptoms and mental disorders to emerge. If things seem to be getting worse, don’t just dig in your heels and try to white-knuckle it.
That also applies to the people close to you. If they don’t seem to be coping with stress well, are withdrawing, lashing out, or just seem off, see if you can do anything to support them. And if it’s appropriate, maybe ask them if they’re doing okay.
6. Know What to Share (and With Whom)
Lots of people spend the holidays with family members they may not feel safe or supported by. Before you see those specific people, take some time to decide what you’re comfortable disclosing and what you want to keep to yourself. For more controversial or vulnerable topics, it often pays to have a quick line or pat explanation at the ready. That way, you won’t risk getting flustered and saying more than you mean to.
7. Find Your People
Then proceed to commiserate.
Most of us are well-versed in hiding aspects of our private lives from our family, friends, or coworkers during the holidays. But the other side of the coin is just as important: identifying the people you’re comfortable opening up a little bit more to. If it’s appropriate, you can even reach out to them beforehand to let them know you’re on their team.
But keep your eyes open for allies in unlikely places. You might discover that you share some political views with your brother’s new girlfriend (and maybe Miss Newcomer is looking for someone to help her navigate Christmas Eve with a whole house of strangers).
After you’ve identified each other, proceed to connive for your mutual benefit.
- Before you enter hostile territory, set up a code word or signal to let the other know you need backup.
- Volunteer to go on last-minute grocery runs.
- Go on walks together to get out of the house when either of you needs a break.
- Cover for each other when one of you has to sneak away for some alone time.
- Create a united front when the conversation topic gets dicey.
- Establish a secret snack stash away from prying eyes and unwanted comments.
This can bring you closer together with the family members you jive better with. It also helps you and your comrades feel less isolated if things get awkward. There are no bonds quite like two relatives who have suffered through Grandpa’s tirades about “kids these days” together.
8. Be An Advocate (When You Can)
Picking your battles is an integral part of surviving the holidays. Some things just aren’t worth rocking the boat over, and you can do yourself a huge favor by letting those things slide.
But some things are worth rocking the boat over. Identify what those are for you and those closest to you, and advocate for them. This can be something as small as designating a quiet room at Grandma’s house so you can duck away from the noise for a little while. It can be something as big as standing up to that one acquaintance when he’s saying something racist/sexist/homophobic/generally harmful.
It can be incredibly hard to stand up for yourself during emotional times like the holidays. If you need a little encouragement, remember that this is bigger than just helping yourself. You never know when that quiet room at Grandma’s house will end up being a life-saver to your autistic cousin or your sister-in-law who desperately needs a nap (even if you lobbied for it for selfish reasons).
9. Know When to Bail
If things go really south, always remember it’s your right to grab your coat and head out the door. Your presence during holiday gatherings is a privilege, and it’s your right to revoke that privilege when you need to. You’re under no obligation to sacrifice your mental health for someone else’s comfort.
The holidays can be tough.
But we’re in this together! Put yourself and those you’re responsible for first. Help out others and build your mental health community when you can. Everything else is a bonus.