October 13, 2020 Mental Health & Wellness

How to Take Care of Your Well-Being During the Holidays

Balance is the key to managing, and enjoying, this time of the year.

By Erin Clifford

The holiday season for many is a marathon of family visits, shopping trips, and activities that run the gamut from baking with the kids to throwing and attending parties. Independent business owners and individuals alike are also trying to square away end-of-year finances during this time, and attorneys often see their workloads rise as clients push for their cases to get settled.

Put all of that together, and you get a huge load of extra activity that, if not balanced correctly, can lead to heightened stress, anxiety, and even depression. With so many extra plans and ambitions during the holidays, it’s all too easy to overextend ourselves, setting expectations no human could meet and leaving our personal wellness routine to lie dormant until the new year.

The 2020 holiday season brings its own unique issues. It comes right in the midst of a global health crisis, COVID-19, when many individuals and families are already burdened with health, financial, and emotional stress brought on by the pandemic.

This stress, whether from the holidays, the pandemic, or a combination of both, can quickly undermine your health and well-being. As Johns Hopkins Medicine notes, stress can lead to high blood pressure, susceptibility to alcohol, and substance abuse, and an inability to fight off other illnesses, such as the winter flu. It can also increase the risk of depression and other mental-health conditions. And even when it doesn’t lead to extremes such as depression or alcohol abuse, holiday stress can take a toll on your energy levels and your general ability to enjoy family time, visits from old friends, and school pageants alike.

As noted above, balance is the key to managing—and enjoying—this time of the year. In fact, the more time you can devote to maintaining your wellness activities such as exercise and healthy eating, the more energy you will have for the special events and activities that make up the holiday season.

For many, striking that balance sounds like a tall order, but it doesn’t have to be. Some simple preparation will help you better understand which wellness activities are essential to your day-to-day routine. Once you understand that, maintaining a healthy lifestyle amidst all the holiday chaos will be infinitely easier and far more enjoyable.

Choose and Commit to Your Top Wellness Priorities

The holidays should be a break—but not when it comes to many parts of your wellness routine.

Mental Health America notes that having a strong routine around sleep, diet, and exercise is linked to improved mental and physical health. We need both those types of health in optimal condition during the holidays, to keep us from overeating, overspending, starting conflict with family members, and stressing about end-of-year business and money.

Ideally, you will have already formed solid routines around wellness activities such as exercise, self-care, meditation, and diet. One of the reasons we must strive to keep these routines intact year-round is that they are not easy to build up in the first place. In one study from University College in London, researchers found that, after examining the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period, the time it took for a new habit to stick was 66 days on average and up to 254 days in certain cases. Breaking a habit—whether it’s 30 minutes of meditation or a solid seven to nine hours of sleep—during the holidays only increases the risk that your routine will be difficult to retrieve once you go back to your normal week. In other words, it will be twice as hard to kickstart your goals when it comes time for New Year’s resolutions.

Inevitably, there will be times during the holidays when breaking your routine can’t be avoided. Think family visits, celebration days, and company-wide holidays. Add to that list the fact that we’re already going through a year full of broken norms, thanks to the pandemic. Any event, even a small family gathering, will come with a little added stress this year around safety and social distancing. For example, if you are planning to throw a party, you will need to plan not just the menu but also how the event will be spaced, how many people you are comfortable having in your space, and whether or not they should wear masks.

The way to juggle this problem of varying schedules and multiple extra activities is to prioritize your wellness activities before the holiday chaos starts and commit to the top few no matter what.

For example, if your physical and mental well-being is especially reliant on your ability to get at least an hour of physical exercise each day, maintain your regular workout schedule. Allow a less-essential wellness activity, like taking a bath, be the one that gets replaced with holiday baking or shopping. On the other hand, an introvert that needs a strong meditation practice and alone time each day should consider keeping that part of their routine intact each morning or evening, since it will help them stay centered amid the chaos of visiting family and friends.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to what counts as essential to your wellness routine. The point is that you choose what works for you and consciously make time each day during the holidays to concentrate on it. Doing so will likely prove an invaluable tool in managing the stress and expectations associated with the holidays. And you can use the tactics you learn from this time to maintain wellness throughout the year. As Stanford Health noted recently, “The more we concentrate on our well-being, the better able we are to fight the potential negative outcomes of stress and anxiety.” And the better we are able to enjoy the holidays.

Design Your Holiday Diet

Food plays a central role in many seasonal holidays. What makes the winter holidays stand out is that there are so many food-focused occasions packed into a very short time. Whether it’s Thanksgiving dinner, a New Year’s brunch, or just baking with the kids, there are seemingly endless opportunities to indulge in the kinds of foods we strive to avoid the rest of the year. Given that, it’s no surprise that the Mayo Clinic has found that people gain one to two pounds weekly on average and sometimes more during the holiday season.

Effectively maintaining your diet during the holidays will be much easier when you take the time to consciously design your plate. Take Thanksgiving as an example. On that day, the tendency to cook too much food and overeat runs through many American households. You can avoid this by knowing beforehand how you will portion out your meal. Ideally, half your plate will be filled with non-starchy vegetables, and a quarter each will be dedicated to some kind of protein and something indulgent, like a homemade mac ’n’ cheese. You don’t necessarily have to skip dessert. After all, this is a holiday. Just limit yourself to one option.

One potential motivator for better eating during the holidays is understanding food’s impact on our overall health. Roughly 95 percent of your serotonin—the chemical that contributes to well-being and happiness—is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, according to Harvard Health. Diets that are high in vegetables, unprocessed grains, fish, and other unprocessed foods fill your gut with so-called “good” bacteria, which can impact your overall mood.

On the other hand, a diet filled with meat and dairy products, sugar, and unhealthy fats is bound to impact you in a less positive way. Commit to limiting these kinds of foods at all of your holiday events to keep your spirits from either crashing to lows or soaring with anxiety and stress.

Dr. Susanne Votruba, an obesity and nutrition researcher at the National Institutes of Health, also recommends identifying “trigger” foods, which are foods that may lead you to binge-eat. If possible, know what these are up front, so that you can be more prepared to resist them if they appear at a holiday buffet or an office party.

 Limit—or Even Eliminate—Alcohol During the Holidays

It’s no secret that alcohol abuse is a major problem across the legal profession. A now-famous study from the Hazleden Betty Ford Foundation found that “21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers.” Additionally, “When focusing solely on the volume and frequency of alcohol consumed, more than 1 in 3 practicing attorneys are problem drinkers.”

The reasons for this seem obvious to anyone who has worked for some time in the legal profession. Lawyers’ schedules are jam-packed, full of heavy workloads and high expectations. There is simply a lot of stress in the life of an attorney, and alcohol seemingly provides a fast, easy solution to that stress. Of course, in the end, heavy drinking or alcohol abuse winds up creating even more stress and worse.

Diligence around alcohol use shouldn’t be limited to just the holidays. It just so happens that the holidays are a time when we’re around even more booze than normal.

Just as with your holiday diet, you can take more control of the situation by designing your drink intake before an event. Commit to limiting yourself to one drink. Even better, opt for a non-alcoholic beverage. These days the popularity of the “mocktail” is rising as part of a larger movement towards health and wellness among consumers. These are zero-proof cocktails that are every bit as festive as their high-ABV counterparts. A zero-proof company called Ritual makes non-alcoholic versions of whiskey, gin, and tequila that can be combined with the usual mixers, for example. Some zero-proof drinks even have added healthy elements like probiotics.

Look for non-alcoholic options at your holiday events. If you are throwing your own party, even for family members, include these drinks on your menu. You may not be the only person at your gathering that wants to keep their wellness intact during the holidays.

Strive for Regular Sleep

Most of us are familiar with the fact that our bodies need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Studies cited by the American Bar Association note that 35–40 percent of the adult U.S. population reports sleeping less than the usually recommended seven to eight hours on weekday nights and about 15 percent report sleeping fewer than six hours. To get an idea of what sleep deprivation can do to a person, the ABA compares it to blood alcohol levels: “After 17–19 hours awake, human performance is equivalent to that of a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.05 percent and after longer sleep deprivation, the level of performance reaches levels equivalent to a BAC of 0.1 percent. An alcohol level of 0.08 percent is the threshold for a DUI in most states.”

That’s not exactly the ideal mindset one needs to cope with holiday and end-of-year chaos, and it’s all the more reason to prioritize sleep during this time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends consistency here: “Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends.” We can add holidays to that list as well. In fact, some studies have found that moving your sleeping schedule around impacts your physical and mental health negatively, and that “catching up” on sleep over the weekend is not an effective strategy.

It’s OK to Use Your “No” Button

Give yourself permission to hit your “no” button when it comes to the extra activities, party invites, shopping trips, and kids’ pageants we face during the holidays.

Women in particular may feel obligated anytime anyone asks us for help or invites us to a social occasion. However, it is this constant tendency to say “yes” that often leads to feeling overcommitted, stressed out, and resentful. Those are not the emotions we want to be feeling during the holiday season.

Knowing when and how to use your “no” button is, like so much else during the holidays, a matter of prioritizing your tasks and activities. If you know beforehand which wellness activities are essential to your daily life, and if you’ve consciously planned for things such as diet and sleep, understanding what to say yes and no to should be fairly obvious.

Of course, the actual saying of “no” can be quite intimidating, especially for people who are used to accepting every invite and helping every person who asks something of them. In that sense, using your “no” button can feel intimidating at first. Improving that ability to respond is mostly a matter of practice. Start out with small activities. Leave an unhealthy item off your grocery store list. Decline that invite for dinner and drinks with girlfriends, or only attend the dinner portion. Find a different activity to replace happy hour.

The more you practice, the easier it will be to use your “no” button, and the easier it will be to prioritize your wellness routine and get the most out of the 2020 holiday season.

Erin Clifford is a holistic wellness coach based in Chicago, Illinois. 


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