Although the holidays can have pleasure and meaning, they are often stressful. Here are some ways to feel happier, healthier and calmer during the chaotic holiday season.
PRACTICE SELF-CARE, STARTING WITH SLEEP
Give yourself the gift of enough sleep–30 minutes to one hour more than your usual, for starters. The majority of American adults are sleep-deprived, making it harder to keep things in perspective, moderate behavior, enjoy life–and tackle the to-do list. Restorative sleep reduces impulsive behaviors like eating or drinking or gambling too much and increases the chances of healthy interactions with others in your life. In other words, it promotes feeling good when you wake up.
The busier you are, the more important it is to fit in some personal time. Walk around the block when you get home from work. Take a few deep breaths when you feel yourself tensing up. Meditate. Listen to music. Laugh. Give yourself (and your loved ones) a little grace—look past the things you can. Make a short list of the people and experiences you’re grateful for each day. Remember that you are okay as you are, and for better or worse, so is everyone else!
SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Unrealistic expectations can lead to stress and heartache. While the holidays may include magical moments, expecting a fix to broken relationships tends to lead to disappointment. Work on communicating the positives you see in others, but do not expect the same in return; you can be delighted when you feel appreciated.
Relatives and others you didn’t like in July are unlikely to have changed by December. You can certainly visit with them (consider that carefully), but set expectations based on reality rather than wishful thinking. Plan ahead: make a list of neutral topics for conversation, be generous in your regard of others, and minimize time with those who make you unhappy or uncomfortable (if they’re in the family room, get busy in the kitchen). Look for pleasure in the little things and in your own wellbeing.
LET GO OF THE THINGS YOU CANNOT CONTROL
This is a close cousin to setting realistic expectations. Much distress comes from trying to manage what you cannot control. There are 24 hours in a day. Period. Remove anything that is non-essential and doesn’t make you happy from your to-do list. Ask for help. Most of us gain pleasure from helping others. Feeling you are an imposition is just that, a feeling; if someone can’t help, they will tell you.
Rather than shooting for perfection, consider changing the goal to “fun” or “relaxing” or “delicious.” In service of delicious, scrap the fine china and the linens that require ironing. Food tastes just as good on regular plates (or even—gasp—on paper plates). Sharing food is timeless and fosters community and good will. It works better if you can relax. And being relaxed is contagious.
SIMPLIFY, ESPECIALLY FOR YOUR KIDS
For your own mental health and that of your children, try to simplify the craziness of the holidays. Studies show that young children are happier when given a few presents rather than many. Too many gifts can feel overwhelming and sometimes lead to meltdowns. Have you ever noticed that toddlers open one or maybe two presents and then play with the ribbons rather than the gifts? Keep that in mind. Stay focused on what you care about most and help your children do the same.
WRITE YOUR OWN STORY
We cannot control what happens, but we can control how we respond. We frame our lives in terms of stories; who we are and who we imagine ourselves to be are the foundation of the stories we tell ourselves and those we tell others. Be intentional about your approach to the sad, frustrating or otherwise stressful moments or memories. Make meaning with stories of relationships and resilience and hope and gratitude. Pay attention to what’s precious.
Maureen Gatt is a licensed clinical psychologist at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.