It’s the most wonderful* time of the year…”
*-also the most stressful, complicated, joy-filled, conflicted, over the top and overwhelming
As the year draws to a close, and the holiday tunes begin to sound in stores and on radio stations all around me, I’m reminded that the last 6 weeks of the year bring with it a million different emotions (not all of which are referenced in those melodious and festive jingles). The holiday season is jam packed in so many ways. 45 days packed full of an impossible amount of joy, stress, financial expense, travel, memory building, tradition following and often relationship reconnection (the good, the bad and the very, very complicated) bring with them the truth about the holidays that no one sings about in the Christmas carols: for many of us, the holidays can quickly become the most stressful and least healthy time of the entire year.
Admittedly, I am a bit of a contrarian, so my first thought after coming to this realization is ‘does it have to be this way?’ Now I am certainly not going to tell you to abandon all holiday plans and traditions in favor of a 4-6 week unplugged beach vacation (although if this is what feels best and healthiest to you, I am all in favor), for most of us, this is far too extreme a retaliation on the stress of the season. So if we can’t run away from it all, how can we find a way to keep the joy and the unique whirlwind of the season without sacrificing our mental and physical health in the process? The solution may be simpler than we first assume (although not entirely easy). When trying to build health in our lives, there are five commonly accepted pillars to whole health and wellness that can serve as landmarks for the path to health, no matter the season. It wouldn’t truly be the holidays without at least a few corny references, so for the sake of this post, we will call these the Five Golden Rings of Holistic Holiday Health! Keep reading to find out what these Golden Rings are, and how we can do our best to honor them without sacrificing too much of what makes the holiday season so special.
Almost as soon as the pumpkin spice products start hitting the shelves, I, for one, can feel my usually decent nutrition habits begin to slide. Sugary treats and coffees, indulgent holiday meals, an extra adult beverage or two and just a steady increase in caloric intake are almost synonymous with the time from mid-November until we grudgingly return to self-control and self-improvement with our New Year’s resolutions at the turn of the calendar. The battle to eat healthy during the holiday season is not for the faint of heart. But after acknowledging the size of the challenge, I have to tell you, there are definitely ways to minimize the damage the season can do. First, and most importantly for every one of these golden rings of holiday health, is to keep our expectations for ourselves realistic. While we are likely not going to skip out on the family holiday meal or completely resist the piles an piles of desserts that surround us for days, nay weeks on end, it is entirely possible, by planning ahead, to pick one or two meals or snacks each day (perhaps those meals when the crowd is not all eating as one) to ensure we are getting the healthier options into our system (think less processed, whole foods with color and protein). Maybe it is deciding on one firm line in the sand, like dessert no more than once a day and only one trip to the dessert table to limit the processed sugar spike that can be so harmful for our mood and health. Lastly, if you truly enjoy the cooking and baking spirit that seems to possess so many of us when the scent of cinnamon and pine hit the air, maybe it is also a great time to challenge yourself with some new recipes that include some healthier replacements to give you (and those around you) an alternative that comes with a slightly smaller side of guilt. After all, it’s probably not only your health that’s taking a toll with the holiday festivities.
Movement and Activity
The second Golden Ring of Holiday Health is one that I personally have learned to love for so many reasons. Movement and activity are the topic of many new year’s resolutions, but what if it doesn’t have to be a cross fit workout or a five-mile interval run? As a recovering perfectionist, it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that a 30-minute walk was far more valuable to my health than a 45 minute run that existed only in my mind. My love for movement really started when I began to give myself credit for the 2-3 mile walk with the dogs on my favorite bike trail or for chasing my 5- and 9-year-old boys around the playground playing tag. There is an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of exercise and physical activity for our physical, mental and emotional health, but one of the keys to remember, especially during the holiday season, is that activity can take many different forms. Start with what is realistic for you and your holiday schedule. Getting out for a walk after a meal, teaching one of the young ones in your family how to jump rope or ride the bike that was left for them under the tree, even dancing to the festive music all around us can be great ways to bring some movement and activity into your holiday traditions with a little less pressure and stress. And one of my favorite parts of physical activity is that it can be done along with those you are reconnecting with, or totally solo (if you need a minute to yourself to recharge that social battery).
Between holiday travel, sometimes across time zones, strange sleep environments and the never ending to do list, sleep can often drift undetected to the bottom of the priority list until we find ourselves needing to recover from our holiday vacation. Recent research has demonstrated the importance of getting adequate quality sleep, not only in keeping us jolly but also in maintaining good health and preventing all sorts of truly concerning health consequences. Sleep is not only restorative, but genuinely crucial for healthy function of almost every system in our bodies. In summary, your body, your mind and your sanity will not function when you are not sleeping well. But with strange environments, jet lag and jam-packed holiday schedules, how can anyone ensure a restful night’s sleep during the holidays? The good news is that this, too, is simpler than you might think. When trying to maximize your holiday sleep, consider three things: your routine, your environment, and your attitude toward sleep. Finding ways to preserve your usual sleep routine, maybe by keeping your nighttime activities similar (think reading, showering before bed, drinking sleepy time tea), adhering to your typical bed time when scheduling activities, or using the same white noise or sleep recording, can make an enormous difference in keeping your biological clock ticking on schedule, allowing you to drift off to dream land without a fight. It’s also worth noting that there are immense positive effects from getting outside during the daytime to get that daytime light that helps regulate our internal clock, especially when combating jet lag-- one more reason to include that mid-day walk in your holiday routine! Secondly, consider the things that make you comfortable when you sleep and bring them along where possible! Maybe it’s your favorite pillow or your lavender scented diffuser, or even the sound of a fan lulling you off to sleep, whatever brings you comfort in your sleep environment (and can be easily packed to go) is worth bringing along for your trip! The last aspect of getting good holiday sleep is, in my opinion, the hardest to address. Our attitude toward sleep can be hard to keep positive and prioritized. For many people, sleep falls down on the priority list, with gift wrapping, playing catch up with family members and sometimes even work tasks bleeding into the hours meant for rest. This one can be the hardest to address but a simple tip to make subtle improvements is actually sleep logging. Try writing down your target bedtime and the time you actually went to sleep, with the amount of sleep you actually got (wake up time minus time you fell asleep), and a quick rating of how you’re feeling. Believe it or not, research has shown us that simply building attention and awareness is enough to begin to make positive changes. When so many things are pulling at our attention, using a written log can keep us accountable to this incredibly important health activity.
On first consideration, this Golden Ring of Health may seem silly, after all there may be more connectedness than you care for during the holiday season, but the spirit in this one is more one of quality over quantity. While there may be no shortage of people around during your holiday celebration, it’s not unusual for people to experience a lonely feeling in a room full of people. For this, it’s important to take time for two types of connection. First, making time to connect with the people in your life who truly make you feel seen, validated and supported (whether they are the people you celebrate the holidays with in person or not) can be a life saver in navigating the relational stress of the season. And second, finding time to connect with yourself can go incredible lengths toward preserving your sanity. Dedicating time to things that recharge your own social and emotional battery (think journaling, reading, listening to your favorite music, spending time with a pet) may mean the difference between an apocalyptic explosion and maintaining the spirit of joy (and patience) through the seemingly endless holiday festivities. Afterall, our relationship with everyone in our lives begins with our relationship with ourselves.
Stress Mitigation and Management
Finally, the fifth and final Golden Ring is the management of the ever-building stress of the season. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the rings 1-4 each played an enormous role in supporting our success us in this final ring, but the added component to this ring is self-compassion. The events of the holiday season can often leave us feeling overwhelmed and like truly succeeding at meeting all of the expectations on us is an impossibility; I for one can personally attest to struggling with this particular brand of festive perfectionism. But the solution here is again simpler than we would think, although definitely not easy for all of us. Giving ourselves credit for our successes, maybe by making a list of the small victories we had each day in the other four rings, or by taking a moment to write ourselves a thank you note for the goals we have managed to achieve (from buying every single person a thoughtful gift to upholding holiday traditions), is a great way to anchor our perspective in balance, ensuring that we don’t only see the places where we may have fallen short of expectation, but also the places we used that time to meet or exceed the really important expectations and goals. Self-compassion allows us to revisit our expectations with a clearer perspective so that we can see whether we were expecting a superhuman feat of ourselves from the beginning and helps us to give ourselves credit for all of the tiny efforts we make each day without noticing. And, just maybe, it allows us to show ourselves some of the love we pour into everyone else during the giving season.
With the season of self-improvement coming right on the heels of this time of wonderful chaos, it’s easy to get discouraged and down on ourselves over the less than ideal practices our holiday traditions can bring. The most important piece of the process is to give yourself some grace and celebrate the small wins. We are a collection of our habits, stringing together just a few wins each day is how we begin to build the healthy lifestyle that lets us maximize enjoyment of the holiday season and every season of life that follows. Start small and remember that this is about caring for ourselves so that we can be present for this holiday and many holidays to come. And if we do, maybe, just maybe, we can truly enjoy the most wonderful time of this year.
If you need help navigating the holiday season, we are here to help. Please reach out to Tailored Brain Health by emailing email@example.com or call 336-542-1800.