7 Ways to Help Maintain Your Mental and Physical Health this Holiday Season
December 19, 2023
In the northern hemisphere, the winter months bring cold weather and lots of sniffles – it feels like almost everyone on the subway has a cold or cough this time of year. But sore throats and stuffy noses aren’t the only health risks that peak around the holidays.
For people living with heart disease, this time of year can be especially taxing. For what feels like my entire life, I’ve had high cholesterol. And not the good kind. My “bad” cholesterol (also called low-density lipoprotein or LDL) is sky-high, meaning I’m at high risk for heart disease and stroke.
Every year my cardiologist says, “Let’s wait to draw your labs since it’s the holiday season. We’ll plan to recheck in the new year when you aren’t surrounded by sweets and desserts.” And every year, I do just that. But it leaves me wondering whether my body is taking an annual silent toll when the holidays roll around and donuts and cookies are staring at me from what feels like every shop window.
What else can I do – of course, I indulge. It’s impossible not to! With that comes a twinge of guilt though, which leads me to another important point: mental health during the winter months. While studies show that the Christmas holiday doesn’t lead to any increase in the use of mental health services or hospital admissions, both rise immediately after. And moods around the holidays are often still lower, especially for people who may already be managing their mental health.
It can be easy to forget to take care of yourself during the holiday rush but there are some tools that I’ve found useful this time of year that allow me to fully enjoy the donut without over-worrying about my health:
1. Acknowledge your feelings
Holidays are a time of joy, but they can also bring a lot of stress! Take a moment to recognize that you’re feeling overwhelmed, tired, anxious, or even sad to manage your emotions better. Reflecting on how I am feeling, and why I am feeling that way, helps me to better express those feelings to others and helps others understand my point of view. From there, I can further assess my actual needs – whether that is a phone call with a loved one, a quiet resting space for myself or a walk outside.
2. Practice self-care
Self-care looks totally different to everyone – finding time to practice it during the holidays can be tricky but significantly important to help manage stress. For many, it means meditating or practicing deep breathing throughout the day or during the week. For others, it means reading a book, taking a hot shower or watching a movie. It’s okay to try out different things when it comes to self-care too. I find that on certain days self-care looks like a quick jog outside but at other times it means sitting on the sofa in pajamas watching a TV show.
3. Know when to say ‘no’
Setting boundaries can be extremely hard at any time of year for certain people (and I am one of them)! But knowing when to say no is crucial during the holidays because this time of year often many different people—including bosses, kids, PTA moms or even the neighborhood mail person—are asking for your time and energy. If certain plans or obligations don’t fit into your schedule, it’s alright to say that you can’t be there. If you start to worry that you’ll be missing out, consider how you may feel if you stretch yourself. This can help you weigh whether it is an event worth attending or whether it feels reasonable to pass.
4. Stay active
Maintaining a regular exercise routine during the holiday can feel downright impossible. Having said that, I suggest looking for ways to incorporate movement into your day that doesn’t necessarily mean hitting the gym. For instance, maybe you’re planning to go shopping – if you park further away than usual or walk from store to store, that’s enough! Or maybe you can find a spot in your home for yoga or tai chi. Even small doses of exercise have been shown to improve mental health.
5. Eat well
From the last week of November to the first or second week of January, studies show that adults tend to gain some amount of weight (sometimes even if they’re trying to lose it). It can be challenging to eat healthy this time of year, especially at large gatherings that generally feature big meals. Develop a plan; bring along a healthier dish to a party if you can. Eat regularly throughout the day so that you don’t end up ravenous when you sit down for a meal. And don’t be afraid to have a cookie or two. Limiting yourself completely from certain foods, especially if you want them, can backfire and lead you to overeat later.
6. Prioritize sleep
Holidays and the nights before holidays are associated with decreased sleep quality and less time asleep overall. At any time of year, sleep is important for health, both mental and physical. Scheduling downtime for rest and sleep can feel silly but setting aside time to unwind and meaningfully catching up on your ZZZs can keep you feeling energized and refreshed.
7. Ask for help
As a trained doctor who has been taught to just figure things out, it can be easy to forget to ask for help. But seeking support this time of year can really make a difference. If you’re struggling with feelings of isolation or loneliness, reaching out to friends or a family member may help. I love learning about group events hosted in my community that are free to attend because it adds to a feeling of connectedness in a large city that can often seem overwhelming. Also, consider talking to your provider or a therapist if you feel like you need some extra help. They can develop a personalized plan for you based on your individual needs.
Overall, it’s important to remember during the dark winter months that you are not alone. The holidays can feel like an absolute whirlwind, but if you take it day by day, you can maintain your well-being without feeling too overwhelmed. And, of course, it’s okay to have a cookie! Just tell them a doctor prescribed one.