The holidays can be a stressful time for many, in many ways and for many different reasons—from family to finances, from food to fitness. Here’s how to help keep well in body, heart, mind, and spirit this (and every) holiday season.
Why is the holiday season so difficult? “Celebrations often demand travelling, overnights away from home, and visits with people who often don’t spend a lot of time together, like extended families and in-laws,” says Brecher, “everyone bringing disparate, idealized expectations about how things are supposed to go. The reality often falls short.”
Hidden holiday costs
As Simmons points out, “The holidays are expensive: there are the gifts, but there’s also the extra costs we don’t often think of, like groceries, gas, travel, and hosting. It all adds up. We know that the holidays are coming, yet we may not save up for them; everything winds up on credit cards, and that’s stressful! It can lead to resentment, fear, and worry during a holiday season that could be about joy.”
A dark time of year
Many struggle to find new rituals and ways to celebrate in the face of loss; sickness, bereavement, and major life changes can feel extra challenging and isolating. The seasonal darkness can be an additional layer. Meyer says, “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) impacts people during times of reduced exposure to sunlight and can be debilitating” to outlook, mood, and well-being.
Insight from the pros
For insight into why the holiday season can feel challenging and what to do about it, I spoke with an all-star holistic team.
- Dr. Diana Brecher, Positive Psychology Scholar-in-Residence with Ryerson University’s student affairs, shares her mental health insight.
- Dr. Caroline Meyer, naturopath and reiki master, offers a natural health perspective.
- Shannon Lee Simmons, financial planner and founder of The New School of Finance, provides financial health recommendations.
- Camara Chambers and Laura Rocoski, co-founders of the niche fitness studio, Bold Move, share movement and physical well-being approaches.
While the aim of the holidays might be to celebrate community and connection, Brecher points out that the temptation to eat, drink, or socialize too much can take a toll on our self-regulation—how we think, feel, and behave—which can in turn lead to “increased self-criticism, lowered self-worth, and feelings of letting ourselves down.”
Given these very real stressors, what can we do to enjoy a more hopeful, healthy, and whole holiday season?
1. A more healthful holiday
“The holidays usually involve more social and family activities, often accompanied by less-than-healthy food and drink options,” says Meyer. “It’s important to optimize healthy choices outside of these activities, even short, brisk walks, for example.” And most importantly, enjoy your holiday indulgences—Grandma’s lemon bars, your favourite martini—by swapping guilt for mindful savouring.
“Fitness and movement can help us relax and let go of a holiday event’s stresses,” Chambers and Rocoski explain. “So, find physical activity that doesn’t feel like a chore. While a friend might find a long winter run relaxing, you might find your bliss in aquafit, a dance class, or aerial yoga. Rejuvenate by letting loose for a bit, moving in ways that feel freeing.”
2. Funding future festivities
What derails our holidays, says Simmons, is “giving up on one’s budget, not intentionally saving, and not starting early. Simmons suggests “saving up a bit of money in the months preceding the holidays to help offset big spikes. Even though there always seems to be something more pressing, you’ll be glad you put little bits away—even $25 a month can help give you a sense of control over your money come holiday time.”
3. Intentional balance
Aim to create an intentional balance between your usual routine and the parties of the holiday season. “Introverts may wish to decide ahead of time how many parties or dinners to attend in a short period, or plan on leaving early or arriving late,” Brecher suggests. “Extroverts might want to focus on getting enough sleep and exercise to fuel social commitments. And each one of us should get in touch with our unique, optimal balance of activity versus rest, and honour it!”
4. Feeling welcome
Among the obligations of the holidays, nonjudgmental physical movement can help restore confidence. People come in all shapes, sizes, abilities, and life circumstances, point out Chambers and Rocoski. “Our bodies are wonderful, and it’s miraculous what they can endure. Inclusive, healthy, physical fitness can create genuine feelings of welcome,” they say, and it can be an antidote to some of the external judgment or inner self-criticism that might creep in over the holidays.
5. Reflection over resolution
Brecher, Meyer, Simmons, and Chambers and Rocoski in similar ways each suggested reflection over rigidity. Take the typical resolution-setting this holiday season. Instead of setting rigid have-tos, aim for an end-of-year think-back. It can remind you of what you have accomplished and places the focus on feelings of gratitude and abundance, instead of self-criticism.
“To avoid or treat SAD, exposure to sunlight or blue light is key; even 20 minutes in front of a light box of 5,000 to 10,000 lumens every morning can make a substantial difference,” says Dr. Caroline Meyer. “In most of Canada, we will not get enough vitamin D from the sun in winter, so supplementing is also helpful. So as not to take too little or too much vitamin D, be sure to check with your health care provider to determine your supplement needs.”
Deena Kara Shaffer, PhD, co-creator of Ryerson University’s Thriving in Action program, is the owner of Awakened Learning, coaching parents and students in healthy, holistic learning strategies. @deenakshaffer
A version of this article was published in the December 2019 issue of alive Canada with the title “A Healthy, Whole Holiday Season.”