For most people, the best parts of the holidays are some combination of family traditions, gift-giving, travel plans, decorating, and feasting on delicious food and drinks. That sounds nice, right? And it is! But, as you might know firsthand from past Decembers, these are also all the things that can make the holiday season inordinately hectic and emotionally taxing.
Survey after survey has found that the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is the most stressful time of year, largely because of the financial strain, social pressure, and endless “to-dos” we’re faced with. The holidays can also be a painful, isolating reminder of the people we’ve lost or grown apart from. And if you’re traveling home to see friends and family, you might feel like you’re thrown back into a role that you’ve moved on from. Finally, the robust eating, drinking, and not sleeping that often comes with celebrating can throw off our routines and make it difficult to cope with all the hoopla.
So: The holidays can be intense. It’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed this time of year. It’s the season of cheer and togetherness, but also of grief, trauma, and stress, Catherine Mogil, PsyD, a psychologist and associate clinical professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, tells SELF. Below, she and other experts share five ways to take care of your mental health during the holidays.
1. Leave perfectionism behind.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea of the perfect holiday celebration, whether you’re banking on all of your travels going according to plan, stressing over what present to get Grandma, or trying to mix up family-sized quantities of your famous spiked eggnog. But an idealized approach can set you up for disappointment.
You don’t need to buy everyone the best or most expensive gift, decorate every last inch of your house, or bake an Instagram-bait pumpkin pie. Things can and will go wrong, and that’s to be expected. That’s the nature of being busy, no matter how seasoned a holiday host you may be: Having more plans inherently means there are more opportunities for things to go wrong. Instead of being quick to judge your shortcomings, be kind and gentle with yourself so you can enjoy things as they are.
Accept that whatever it is that you’re doing is enough. A bit of self-compassion can go a long way, making us more resilient in times of stress and more optimistic about perceived failures. “Give yourself the grace to not have everything be perfect,” Dr. Mogil says. By embracing imperfection, you’ll focus way less on what goes wrong and more on the positives—like how incredible it is to finally be reunited with friends and family again even though your flight got delayed, or, perhaps, how ridiculously fun it was to try and bake a loaf of cornbread with your cousin, even if it tasted like dirt.
2. Stick with some of your routines.
Humans thrive off of routines. Consistent, healthy habits—like regularly eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep—combat stress, improve our mental health, and make our lives feel more meaningful, research suggests. During the holidays, when you’re eating and drinking more than you usually do, it’s easy to fall off track, which can throw off your biological clock (a.k.a. sleep-wake cycle), and all sorts of other vital body functions. “There are lots of things about our normal schedules that we’ve all gotten ourselves into that are very stabilizing for our stress levels,” Dr. Mogil says.
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