by Charles Schaeffer, PhD, MA
Another holiday season is upon us. And along with gifts and nonstop seasonal soundtracks, it can also bring stress, disappointment, emotional eating, and overindulgence. Between event planning, shopping, cooking, managing relatives, and trying to complete the 300 other tasks "necessary" for a good holiday, it's no wonder many people lose sight of what keeps them physically healthy and mentally grounded throughout the rest of the year. But it doesn't have to be that way. With just a little thought and planning, you can survive – and even thrive – this holiday season.
1. Keep exercise essential. Physical activity is the number one thing I recommend to everyone I work with because it reduces stress, improves mood and concentration, and combats depression. Decades of research shows that even just ten minutes of challenging exercise daily triggers the same hormones in your brain (serotonin and dopamine) targeted by anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications. Regular exercise builds up levels of these important mood regulators, becoming a buffer for stress, anxiety, and depression.When it comes to improving how you feel, getting regular exercise can be as effective as taking antidepressants.
During the holidays, most people skip their workout to make room for more seasonal activities. That's a double whammy: You add potentially stressful situations and lose your stress reliever in one blow. Instead, do what you can to maintain your exercise schedule. If you don't have time to go to the gym or take a long run, simply scale back. Go for a 10-minute walk or do some light stretching, rather than skipping your workout entirely.
2. Get in touch with gratitude. Guess what else protects your brain from stress and depression? Gratitude. Recent neuroscience research shows that simply pondering the question, "What am I grateful for?" increases dopamine and serotonin, even if you can't actually think of an answer. Just searching for things to be grateful about builds stronger positive emotional pathways in your brain.
3. Protect your sleep. Few things consistently mess with people's emotional and physical health like chronic sleeplessness and poor sleep. It leads to weight gain, additional stress, and irritability. Most of us sleep less well this time of year whether from staying out late drinking at parties or leaving all the gift-wrapping until the last minute. Losing sleep over the perfect meal or present will not make you or your family happier or healthier over the holidays. But you know what will? Consistent quality sleep.
Cut back on caffeine (and eliminate it entirely after 2 PM), and lay off the eggnog before bed. Skipping naps, especially the ones that find you sprawled on the couch after a big meal, will improve your ability to fall asleep at night. And though it's tempting, take a pass on the goodies in the cabinet or leftovers in the fridge for at least three hours before bed. That way, heartburn, indigestion, or a sugar headache won't keep you awake.
4. Feel (don't eat or drink) your feelings. The holidays often bring up strong feelings for people around everything from family losses, new relationships, to meeting the high expectations of visiting family. And most of us would rather avoid those difficult emotions – through the time-honored holiday traditions of eating or drinking – rather than just accepting that it is natural to feel them this time of year.
In the short run, emotional eating and drinking can be an effective way to distract or disorient you from strong and sometimes painful emotions. But it doesn't work in the long run, leaving you with the same anxiety about difficult emotions, a potential dependence on alcohol or food to self-soothe, and (all too often) 5 or 10 extra pounds that won’t be easy to lose.
If you notice yourself reaching for something to eat or drink in response to a difficult feeling, try to make sense of what's going on instead. Are you angry with your partner? Are you grieving a departed relative or friend? Are you sad about a recent break up? The more you try to make sense of your emotions, the less scary and dangerous they become. And the easier it gets to sit with them rather than attempt to numb them.
5. Give yourself the present. One of the top killers of holiday enjoyment is becoming so wrapped up in planning the best holiday experience that you lose the ability to experience the good moments that happen in the present. While you worry about whether everyone is happy with the meal, if anyone is fighting about politics, or if the kids are eating too much sugar, you miss the powerful, gratifying moments that make the holidays magical.
One great way to start embracing the present moment is by taking a few minutes to find one thing you feel good about right now, and then lingering on that thought for as long as you can. When you stop trying to make your holiday fit an ideal, you open up space to savor the holiday as it is.