Give yourself gift of self-care this holiday season

  • Published
  • By Michele L. Tornabene LCSW-C
  • Office of Integrated Resilience

The holiday season comes jam-packed with high expectations to be joyful, merry, and bright, just like those magical holiday movies. For many of us, this time of year also means spending extra money when budgets are already stretched thin, trying to find that perfect gift for our loved ones.

There are holiday celebrations – some we look forward to and some we may dread. There are extra-rich foods and the temptation to indulge in alcoholic beverages more often than usual. Other obligations may include traveling long distances for a short period, seeing family we may have challenging relationships with, and the disruption of our usual schedules. Finally, as we are experiencing some or all these increased stressors, we are still expected to work and manage our busy lives.

For some, this time of year can even be downright dreadful, because it could mark the loss of a loved one, a special relationship, or another negative experience. Others may experience an increase in mental health symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

According to the American Psychological Association, almost 40% of people surveyed said their stress levels went up during the holidays, and the National Alliance on Mental Health noted that more than 60% of those already struggling with mental illness described their symptoms as worsening around the holidays.

The good news is there are simple things we can do to manage and enjoy this time of year.

First, adjust your expectations.

  • The curated worlds of social media, holiday movies, and commercials aren’t reality. Perfect decorations, lavish holiday parties, and luxurious gifts aren’t necessary to have a happy holiday season, and comparing yourself to anyone else isn’t helpful.
  • Create a budget and stick to it. Shorten your gift list and prioritize children, or perhaps host a gift exchange where you only buy for one person in a group. You can make your own gifts; people love handmade and creative items. Choose to do an activity together, because your loved ones generally value time spent with you over a “thing.”

Second, you are allowed to politely decline a holiday get together, but if you must attend one of these events, create a plan.

  • For example, when will you arrive, who you will sit with and/or talk with, and how long you will stay? Have an exit strategy in mind, and don’t be afraid to excuse yourself early if you feel overwhelmed.

Third, be mindful when it comes to eating and drinking holiday cheer, since this can contribute to physical and emotional fallout.

  • Also know that a night or two of extra cookies and eggnog will not ruin your life! Do your best to stick to your normal diet and exercise routine.
  • Walking is also a great way to get moving and keep your mood up.
  • Substance overuse risk increases during the holidays; drink in moderation or not at all and limit your time in situations where you may be tempted to act in ways that are harmful to your own well-being.

Again, keep realistic expectations. If your relatives tend to fight throughout the year, they will most likely fight during the holidays. For some, family gatherings should be avoided altogether. There are ways to acknowledge family members without being in the same space as them, such as a handwritten card or a phone/video call. Spend time with the family you create, have a “Friendsgiving.”

Create new traditions or recreate holiday traditions that you experienced as a child. Get involved with a faith-based group if you are comforted by spiritual support. Volunteer in your community; sometimes simply giving back is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.

The end of another year often prompts people to reflect on their achievements or disappointments. Make a conscious effort to list all the positive things you did or experienced during the year. We often dwell on what went wrong, but there is always something that went well. 

Acknowledge your feelings, whether they’re good or bad. You are allowed to feel what you feel, and not enjoying a certain season or day doesn’t make you a bad person. Remind yourself that bad feelings, like the holidays, will eventually pass.

Finally, please remember that even during this time of year when we focus on giving, it is okay to take care of yourself. You are worth it, and you are not alone. If the stress of the holidays starts to impact your mood or activities of daily living, please reach out to your Primary Care Provider, Behavioral Health Specialist, Military One Source, Military Family Life Counselor, or Employee Assistance Program office. Remember you are never alone; Enjoy the holiday season however you choose to celebrate!