We are all ready to say goodbye to the worst year any of us can remember. Everything that converged in 2020 made caring for mental health a challenge, and those dynamics are not letting up during the holiday season.
But what if we could finish the year strong, instead of stumbling across the finish line? Whether you’re feeling like Buddy the Elf or the Grinch, approaching the coming month intentionally and thoughtfully will put you in a position to launch into 2021 from a firm foundation. And the good news is that there are rhythms and symbols in this season that are tailor-made to support you in that effort.
Here are the principles I’ll be using to manage my mental health this holiday season.
Set realistic expectations
I am a romantic dreamer. I imagine everything turning out perfectly, the way they so often do in Hallmark Christmas movies: everyone should be merry and bright as snow falls, lights twinkle, and I kiss my one true love under the mistletoe. Often I do not even realize I had expectations of others until I’ve been disappointed by them. Rather than focusing on external factors and other people’s behaviors, which are out of my control, I’m challenging myself to identify my expectations and adjust them intentionally — as well as my reactions.
Consider a social media fast
Social media, particularly Instagram, has a way of reinforcing that all is merry and bright in everyone else’s world — except mine. In April, when I was working from home, I decided to cut ties with all my social media accounts. I was tired of seeing my weekly screen time report increase, and I was tired of the barrage of Covid and political news. I logged out of all my accounts, deleted all of my apps. I didn’t think I would last long, but days turned into weeks, weeks into months. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made for my mental health. I didn’t even realize how much anxiety it was causing me until it was out of my life. Lately, I’ve started logging on to Instagram again and I notice myself becoming preoccupied with other people’s lives, comparing them to mine. This holiday season, I’m renewing my commitment to staying off social media and enjoying my life and the people in it as it unfolds before my eyes in real time.
The holidays are punctuated by some of my favorite foods and beverages, but my body and brain would rather I say farewell to refined carbs (sugar, juice, pastries, pasta, white bread) and alcohol — substances that have been linked to worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety. Rather than using the entire month of December as an excuse to indulge in those things, this year I’m limiting myself to three days of consumption for these kinds of treats: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve. Even then, I’ll be mindful not to drink or eat to excess.
Nature is good for the whole person — body, mind, and soul. Countless studies have reiterated that spending time in nature helps to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Personally, when I am in nature, I cannot help but gain a new perspective. I contemplate how intricately and beautifully everything is created, how magnificent it is — and in a wonderful way, how small I am in comparison. Where I live, the winter months are cold and the days are short. It’s easy to come up with excuses for why I’m better off staying inside by a warm fire. But this holiday season I’m committed to going outside, no matter how cold, even if it’s just for a five-minute walk!
Tend to your budget
I want to be generous during this time of year, but that doesn’t mean I need to break the bank. The quality and thoughtfulness of the gift is more important than the price tag. Set a budget and stick to it. Become creative with your gift giving: homemade gifts can be beautiful and so meaningful; or write a friend a note and schedule a coffee date post covid. People should not go into debt during the holiday season. I would much rather go for a walk with my friend than have her feel like she needs to spend money on me.
I used to work out to get in better shape — to earn all my sweet treats, or to work them off. But that made working out a miserable experience. My perfectionism would kick in and I’d dwell on the fact that I’d never attain a perfect body. During quarantine, I reframed this mentality. Working out was a gift that gave testimony to my healthy, strong body. Progress over perfection became my goal. The benefits of exercise on the body — both physically and mentally — are immeasurable. Fitting in 30 minutes of exercise *most* days (whether it’s an intense round of cardio, a relaxing round of Pilates, or a leisurely walk) is my goal over break.
Grieve and honor the past
Life doesn’t hit pause for the holidays or for a pandemic. I lost both of my grandmothers this year, one of whom had lived with my family since I was 14. This Christmas is going to be different. I don’t know what it will feel like to come down on Christmas morning and not see my Grandma Joan — I won’t get to hear her exclaim that this year’s Christmas tree is the best one yet, or watch her carefully unwrap each present so as to save the wrapping paper, or see her eyes light up with joy as she beholds each one of us as we sit around the dinner table. But I do know it will be hard and I will miss her. And I’m not going to pretend it’s easy or that it isn’t sad. I’m going to acknowledge my feelings; I will grieve her loss. But I will also honor her memory by not letting sorrow have the final say. In remembering her, I will also remember her joy — and I will live out of that joy.
It’s reported that while symptoms of depression and anxiety increase during the holiday season, ER visits and suicides actually decrease — it isn’t until a couple months later that they begin to spike. So when the decorations come down and life seemingly goes back to normal, the feelings and stress stirred up during the holidays may linger on and continue to exacerbate existing conditions. Keep these approaches in mind as we journey into the new year, and continue to care for yourself — body, mind, and spirit — with thoughtfulness and intentionality.