Smart Health

Thriving Through December

Prioritizing your well-being during the holiday season.

It should hardly come as a surprise that each December is marked by increased stress. The anticipation of family gatherings, management of school, work, and social responsibilities, and pressures to conform to unrealistic expectations of the holiday season can absolutely grate on one’s nerves. There are also the demands of shopping, cooking and cleaning, or entertaining, as well as numerous financial and time pressures. With all of these competing demands, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves limping across the finish line in January, just grateful that we have managed to stay in the race.

While it may feel elusive, we can cultivate a sense of peace during the holiday season by mindfully focusing on taking care of ourselves, making a plan, and sticking to it.

Practice 1: Keep a Budget

One of the greatest stressors during the holidays can be financial strain. All good queer folks know that you don’t show up empty-handed to an event, so we purchase items for others (and sometimes ourselves), bring bottles of wine (or seltzer) to parties, and show our love and appreciation through the act of thoughtful gift-giving.

It is extremely helpful to make a budget and stick to it. Setting rules for yourself, such as buying gifts for only select individuals like children or immediate family, can help to cut down on holiday spending. Another strategy is to establish expectations with family about gifts so that guilt can be avoided. You can also try something new or creative by making homemade gifts for extended family members and friends.

Perhaps your family and loved ones might be open to donating to charities in each other’s names, rather than ordering another gadget from Amazon. Alternatively, a gift exchange where each member draws the name of one other person can help to limit purchases. Prioritizing personal gifts over expensive gifts is a great way of showing you care without breaking the budget.

How else might you adjust your spending, while keeping with a spirit of generosity? By giving some thought to this, keeping to a budget may be much more within reach.

Practice 2: Spend Meaningful Time with Others

The holiday season may be an ideal time to set aside differences and practice acceptance. While we certainly cannot change others, we can change our expectations of them, allowing people to simply be who they are, with all of their strengths, flaws, and complexities. When we stop trying to change people to fit our idea of who they should be, we free ourselves from the disappointment and anger that can so often negatively impact our relationships.

If you anticipate that family interactions may be stressful, keep in mind that taking a break from heavy or tense conversations is extremely helpful in managing challenging emotions. Give yourself permission to take a walk, text or call a friend, or engage in another activity that might bring a moment of calm in the midst of an emotional storm. It’s also okay to take time to yourself and be alone.

When managing family, think through everyone’s role in the household. Who are you expected to be, and is this acceptable to you? If not, setting and maintaining boundaries can be a vital part of your holiday self-care practice. Remember, it’s okay to say no to people when you feel you are being pressed outside of your comfort zone. Another strategy may be to start new family traditions that are less demanding but equally rewarding. Are there any new activities you might like to introduce this holiday season?

Community service and volunteering might be one strategy for experiencing something outside of yourself and providing an opportunity for connection with others.

Practice 3: Double Up on a Good Self-Care Plan!

Perhaps you have been managing your emotional state pretty well over the past months. You’re feeling pretty even-keeled and hoping that the holiday season won’t knock off your shine. If that’s the case, be sure not to abandon the things that have been working for you. If there are self-care activities that have been helpful such as therapy, working out, or engaging with hobbies, then do even more of that over the next few weeks.

Make a plan to eat well, including healthful foods, and monitor caffeine intake and its relationship to sleep. Setting a bedtime to ensure adequate sleep quality and hours is an easy way to see fast improvements in overall mood. Are you getting eight hours of sleep a night? What alterations can you make to diet and activity levels that might promote better sleep quality? Note that limiting alcohol and substance use can improve sleep quality as well as help reduce fluctuations in one’s level of depression, anxiety, or other mental-health symptoms.

Practice 4: Speaking of Alcohol, Pay Close Attention!

Given the increased stress that people experience during the holidays, it’s important to remember that alcohol can substantially increase depression in addition to disrupting sleep quality. There can also be an impact of alcohol on cognition, memory, thinking, and planning.

Finally, it’s important to encourage guests to get home safely by using designated drivers or rideshare apps. If you’re planning on drinking at all, just get an Uber or Lyft. It’s easier and safer that way.

Practice 5: Acknowledge and Manage Loss

Sometimes, the holiday season serves as a reminder of the people and things we have lost. As we review the year, we think about family members and friends who may have passed on. We might also think about lost jobs, relationships, or opportunities. Acknowledging that a sense of grief can dim and color our experience of the holidays is one way of preparing ourselves to better manage these feelings.

If you know someone who has lost a friend or loved one this year, don’t be afraid to reach out to them, if only to simply ask how they are doing and how you can help.

If you have lost someone special, consider their traditions that you feel like keeping and allow yourself the space to both grieve and celebrate the person for what they meant to you.

Holiday Self Care Within Reach

A focus on self-care through the holidays can help to buoy your mind and spirit. Pause to reflect on the positive things that have happened this past year. Maybe there was a conversation that stuck with you because it was meaningful and you felt a moment of connection—or you had a moment of success in a relationship, at work, or in the community. Even though it may feel small, those moments can help to create a more objective and realistic picture of the past year, its successes, and its opportunities.

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Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on the use of psychotherapy and medications to treat mental health and substance use disorders. Dr. Shorter serves as the psychiatrist of record at The Montrose Center and lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health and wellness. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected].
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