It’s hard to believe that December is already nearly half over, and that with it we find ourselves heading into the holiday season. While I hope this time of year is one that you look forward to, I also know that it is one that can be very challenging. There are a lot of beautiful things about this season, but for many the increased social gatherings, busy calendars, pressure on spending a ‘perfect’ holiday with loved ones, the stress of buying gifts, etc. is a lot. If you are also someone that experiences anxiety or depression, or who struggles with food/body concerns, the holidays can be especially challenging. If this is the case for you, I first and foremost want you to know that you are not alone. I have heard from many of my clients over the past few weeks that this is a stressful, overwhelming, time of year, and I have had many Christmases myself that have felt more painful than joyful. As a result, I wanted to offer a few ways to support yourself through this holiday season, including some practices to regulate your nervous system as well as ways to connect with yourself and what you want and need this Christmas.
Connect With Yourself
While this season can come with a very full to-do list, I encourage you to take some time for you. Consider, ‘how do I want to celebrate this season? How do I want to spend my time? What do I need?’
Whether that is simply taking a few moments each morning to take a deep breath and ground with your morning cup of coffee, making time to journal, meditate, build new traditions that feel special to you, or set boundaries with others (or your time), this can be a very important practice. It’s so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle that we forget to check in with ourselves – how we are feeling, what we want, and what we need. Remember the old adage ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’ Well, this time of year perhaps that is more important to remember than ever. If we are putting everyone and everything else ahead of our needs, we will find ourselves burnt and our anxiety levels rising quickly.
Finding ways to take care of and support ourselves through the holiday season really starts with taking time to connect with what we most need, and then finding ways to give that to ourselves. Even if it’s small, it’s important. These moments can be our reprieve amidst the busyness, and they can help bring much needed grounding and calming to our nervous system. The key is to show up to these moments of connection with intention and presence. You deserve this time, and you deserve to take care of your own wellbeing!
Find and Savor Things You Love About This Season
One way to feel more connected to yourself and the season, is to find things you love about this time of year and mindfully, intentionally, savor them. These can be bigger moments or experiences such as being with family and friends, or they can be small things – like a song you enjoy, your favorite holiday drink, a movie you love to watch, the look of Christmas lights, the smiles on people’s faces, even the feeling of staying in and being cozy and warm now that it is cold outside! Whatever it is for you, I encourage you to find elements of this season that resonate with you (or perhaps that you used to love as a kid if nothing comes to mind now) and make time for them. For example:
- If your favorite Christmas carol comes on the radio, can you be present and really listen to it? Taking note of the elements of it that you love? How it makes you feel? Maybe any memories or nostalgia it brings up?
- With your favorite drink, can you really savor the taste of it? The smell? Perhaps the warmth of it in your hand if, like me, you love a warm beverage?
- Can you put your phone away and limit distractions while you curl up with your favorite holiday movie?
- Can you notice all the lights around you as you walk home from work? Or how, amidst the busyness, people are together more, smiling more?
- At holiday gatherings, can you find one person who you feel good connecting with and really savor that experience of being with them? Without mentally moving into the future or past, can you be present with them?
These are all practices, and there is no way to do this perfectly! With mindfulness we are likely always going to have our thoughts bouncing around, but what I have noticed is that the intention to savor small moments, to be present with what you love about this time of year, can bring a greater sense of connectedness to the season and to yourself. We don’t have to have the perfect holiday (or have our days look like those we see on Instagram) to have moments of magic and joy. If this practice resonates for you, I encourage you to find one thing a day you can truly savor. No matter how small!
Incorporate Practices That Will Support Your Nervous System
The holidays are stressful, let’s face it. What we want to be the most peaceful time of the year is often the exact opposite. If you struggle with anxiety, depression, or disordered eating, this may be even more true. And that’s okay. Sometimes knowing that, and not shaming yourself for it, is half the battle. But apart from that, there are certain practices you can incorporate into your days (and more stressful moments) to provide some relief and bring your nervous system out of a more fight/flight (sympathetic state) to a more relaxed (parasympathetic state). Here are a few practices you can try:
- Deep breathing (making your exhale longer than your inhale)
Ex. Breathe in for 4, hold for 2, out for 6
Sighing is also a good way to reset the nervous system!
- Grounding practices like the 54321 technique. For this, take notice of:
5 things that you can see around you
4 things that you can hear
3 things that you can touch
2 things that you can smell
1 thing that you can taste
- Swaying side to side
- Bilateral stimulation such as tapping alternating hands on your legs (ex. Tap your left hand onto your left leg, then right hand on right leg, etc.)
- Get fresh air and go for a walk (a form of bilateral stimulation that promotes feelings of calm and wellbeing)
- Spend time with an animal (this can be a powerful form of co-regulation)
- Use anchors to connect you back to the present moment, such as a grounding scent (carrying a small bottle of a favorite essential oil is an easy way to do this)
Other practices that may be supportive include:
- Getting as much sleep as you can
- Practicing self-compassion
- Watching a comforting movie or listening to a favorite song
- Wearing soft, comfortable clothing
- Reaching out to your support people, including loved ones or your therapist
On a similar note, making time (even a few moments) to decompress and relax after a particularly stressful event is very important. Even a few moments of re-orienting to the present moment and reminding yourself that you are okay, you are safe, can be incredibly soothing.
Communicate With Friends and Family
If holiday events are stressful for you and bring up a lot, it can be helpful to communicate with your loved ones in order to get the support you need. Of course only do so with people that you feel safe with and can trust, but if you are able to reach out to someone, tell them you are having a tough time and ask for their support, this can be incredibly helpful for lowering anxiety levels and generally just helping you get through the event.
Maybe you just need someone to know you are scared and have their reassurance, maybe you need to make a plan for how long you stay at a gathering, ask someone to stay near you until you feel more comfortable, or help intervene in tricky conversations. Whatever it is for you, knowing you have the support and understanding of a loved one can bring a lot of relief. Similarly, if holiday events around food are triggering for you, communicating with a trusted person and making a plan around this ahead of time can be helpful.
Allow Yourself to Feel Your Emotions
While it might sound simple, allowing yourself to feel your emotions may be the hardest thing on this list. We all want to be happy and feel joy this time of year, but that may not always be true for you – and that’s okay. If you are feeling grief, anger, fear, or any other emotion that is not ‘celebrated’ this time of year, there is nothing wrong with you. The holidays can bring up a lot, and you are allowed to feel however you do. I encourage you to practice allowing yourself to feel your emotions without judgement (or as little judgement as possible) and to make space for them.
If you need to cry, vent in your journal (or to a therapist), or ask for support because you’re anxiety is high, that’s okay! It’s an easily forgotten (and ignored) fact in our culture, but acknowledging and allowing ourselves to feel our emotions is what ultimately helps us to move through them. My wish for you is that you can take the pressure off yourself to feel any particular way, and instead honour the totality of your experience this season. However that looks. And, if that is challenging, I hope you allow yourself to reach out for support or schedule an appointment with a trusted therapist or healer for the New Year. You do not need to struggle or go through challenges alone.
Although it’s not necessarily a separate category, I wanted to close this post by reminding you to go easy on yourself. Offer yourself grace and compassion (as much as possible), because you are doing the best that you can. Even if you notice thoughts immediately coming in to disagree with that statement, I want to suggest that perhaps it’s true. You are. You are doing the best that you can, right now, with the circumstances and tools presented to you. We live in world that advertises ways to fix and perfect ourselves at every turn, and it is so easy (and common) to feel like we are not good enough and not doing enough. But you are. You really are. So, as much as possible, be kind to yourself this Christmas. You really do deserve it.
I hope that some of these practices can be helpful for you this holiday season. I wish you a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year, and, as always, please don't hestiate to reach out for support if you need it!