In theory, the holiday season should consist of kicking back, relaxing, and embracing the festive spirit with your family and loved ones. However, reality often paints a different picture.
The build-up to the holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, is filled with never-ending to-do lists, hunting for perfect gifts, cooking elaborate dishes, decorating your interiors, and cleaning the house before all social gatherings.
It can leave you feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and exhausted, with no time to rest and recover.
Add in the pressure to create picture-perfect idyllic scenarios straight from the movies and, often, unavoidable family conflicts, and you have a perfect recipe for skyrocketing stress levels.
That’s why prioritizing your needs during this busiest time of the year is so important.
In this blog post, we discuss the challenges of the holiday season, list the benefits of self-care during the holidays, and share simple holiday self-care tips to help you navigate this time and support your well-being.
It’s pretty ironic how far from reality the perfect image of the holiday season is maintained by media and society.
We grow up learning that the holiday season is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year” when we put our differences aside and happily reunite with our families. Yet, simultaneously, up to 41% of Americans state that they’re five times more likely to be stressed out during the holidays.
Why is that?
One reason is that many people find the busyness and chaos of hosting to be an anxiety-inducing experience, understandably so.
This issue is valid specifically for women, who, on average, spend twice as much time cooking and preparing for the festivities as men do. I encourage you to set an intention this holiday season to support those in your life who are in charge of holidays preparations, and ensure they’re being helped out.
Another reason for holiday stress can be the unpleasantness embedded in having to see your family if it’s toxic, dysfunctional, or abusive.
Just coming back to your parents’ house, the place you grew up in, can be emotionally straining. It might bring difficult memories and repressed emotions to the surface, putting you in a fight-or-flight mode and making the holiday season challenging on another level.
Rather than looking forward to catching up, you might get fixated on different ways to avoid family conflict and the drama that comes with it.
Whether it’s an abusive parent being overly critical, an argumentative uncle who loves to get into political disputes, a nosy aunt who cannot stop herself from crossing your boundaries and questioning you on your love life, or a cousin making passive-aggressive comments about your appearance, I’m sure you can immediately name at least one person that triggers you, pushing all the wrong buttons.
While in our daily lives, we wouldn’t think twice about entertaining these individuals, the situation is different when it comes to our family.
You might feel obliged to spend time with them, no matter how poorly they treat you.
As a result, you can struggle with:
- a sense of entrapment
- anxiety and panic
- strong sense of guilt and shame
- loss of control
- heightened stress levels
- isolation and loneliness
- low mood
- poor focus.
Considering these emotional hurdles, home chores, responsibilities to fulfill that you can never run out of during the holidays, focusing on yourself is of utmost importance. Yet, we often push our needs to the back burner while turning our closest environments into a bustling hive of stress-induced hectic activity.
Amidst the chaos of packing gifts, grocery shopping, picking up flowers, decorating, planning out the festivities with other family members, cleaning the house, and so on, you may feel that self-care is a luxury you simply cannot afford.
But that mindset can cost you significantly, pushing you further down the spiral of anxiety, exhaustion, and burnout.
The truth is that one of the best decisions you could make during the holidays is to prioritize your needs and engage in activities that help you replenish your resources. While you might think that doing yoga, meditating, journaling, or taking a bubble bath is selfish, it’s the opposite.
If you’d like to enjoy the festive time with your loved ones, remember you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Being 24/7 on the go will only exhaust you and put you on the verge of burnout. Allowing yourself to slow down and hit a pause on all the plans for 15-30 minutes a day will work to your advantage, and your future self will greatly appreciate it.
And if that’s not enough to convince you of the importance of self-care, here’s a list of benefits you can gain from squeezing in your schedule some restful activities:
- stress reduction
- (chronic) pain relief
- mental health boost
- better focus and memory
- stronger immune system
- increased mood
- boost of productivity no and creativity
- prevents anxiety and depression
- fosters self-compassion and improves self-esteem.
Understanding the potential challenges we might face throughout holidays and recognizing the benefits of self-care during this time is a great first step. But it doesn’t present much value without practice, so let’s discuss the details of holiday season self-care!
By far, the most common mistake people make when it comes to self-care is to engage in restful activities after they’re already stressed, anxious, and depleted.
The idea of prioritizing your needs comes down to building a routine, creating mindful rituals, and maintaining them in order to replenish your resources regardless of how you feel. Energized, exhausted, or somewhere in between – practicing self-care shouldn’t be a last resort option but a conscious choice to invest in your well-being every single day.
As discussed above, the holiday season puts us at a greater risk of experiencing higher stress levels. This knowledge also gives us a chance to prepare ahead of time and create a stress-prevention routine as well as an escape plan for those anxiety-filled moments:
A dish burnt in the oven?
Family members running late to the gathering?
A triggering conversation with your mother-in-law?
A stupid fight with your partner due to irritability?
Stressful, unpredictable situations will most likely occur, and strengthening your inner resources regularly with a holiday stress self-care routine will help you build the capacity to face them without crumbling down and imploding.
Consider implementing small habits into your morning and bedtime routines that allow you to check in with your body and calm your mind, such as:
- gentle stretching
- body scan
- breathing exercises
- mindful eating
- walking outside
- taking a relaxing shower/bath
Seeking moments of mindfulness during the holidays, making sure you sleep enough, move your body, and eat nourishing meals is always a good idea, as it supports your overall health.
Aside from the general self-care, it’s also worth it to reflect on how to best cope with moments of heightened stress. The best way to do so is by looking for lessons from your past experiences during the holiday season:
- Was there an issue you’d rather avoid? How would you prevent it this time around?
- Is there a problematic family member? Perhaps they could be seated at a specific spot at the table when sitting down to a feast? Maybe your partner could talk to them about topics to avoid before Thanksgiving?
- What usually triggers your anxiety and stress during the holiday season? How to counteract their effect?
- What attitude would help you reduce anxiety? How can you achieve it?
- Do you know specific activities that would ease your mind and body?
- If you start feeling overwhelmed, what can be your exit strategy?
- What family member can you confide in and count on them in case of an emergency?
Remember, your mental health is the highest priority. While you might feel powerless, helpless, or obliged to sit through insufferable family meetings or attend energy-draining events, the truth is that you always have a choice.
Here’s an example:
Suppose you’re talking to this one dreaded family member, and you feel a bit pinned down. You’re starting to notice signs of anxiety like increased stress, sweaty palms, faster heartbeat, shorter breath, and dizziness.
Rather than forcing yourself to carry the conversation and pretending all is good, you have every right to:
- excuse yourself and go to a different room,
- leave the house to breathe some fresh air and release the tension by taking a walk,
- recover your composure with breathing exercises (i.e., box breathing) or a meditation,
- processing your feelings by journaling or calling a trusted friend.
Would you describe yourself as an introvert?
Do you have too many responsibilities?
Are you usually feeling more on edge during the holiday season?
Do Thanksgiving and Christmas mean meeting again with your dysfunctional family?
Maybe you tend to feel more isolated and lonely during this time of the year?
Do you struggle with people-pleasing or perfectionism?
Whatever your risk factor might be, combined with the busyness of holidays, the cultural pressure around it and all the social interactions woven into its fabric can significantly strain your physical, mental, and emotional health.
That’s where holiday self-care comes in, aiming to support your overall well-being and minimizing the risk of stress and burnout. And tending to your needs starts with knowing and respecting your limits, which often translates to setting boundaries with yourself and others.
Easier said than done, that’s for sure. But worry not – here’s a step-by-step process for boundary setting, a holiday self-care checklist, if you will:
Checklist Item #1: Explore Past Moments
Take some time to reflect on past holidays and think about moments when your boundaries were crossed, needs that weren’t met, and ways in which you belittled or minimized them. Then, try coming up with ways to prevent these issues from happening and define what your limits are.
Here are some prompt questions to consider when going deeper into that exploration:
- When looking back at the holidays from previous years, were there any particular moments when you felt overwhelmed, helpless, or disrespected? Why?
- Can you name specific people, places, or circumstances that trigger you?
- In a perfect world, what would your family gathering look like? Consider:
- activities you’d like to do,
- topics you’d feel comfortable discussing,
- the duration of the trip/meeting,
- family members you’d like to reconnect with
- Can you think of ways to improve your Thanksgiving/Christmas this year or protect your energy
Checklist Item #2: Define Your Limits & Commit
Before going into the family gathering, define your limits and commit to sticking to them. This way allows you to achieve mental clarity on your needs and approach the holidays with the right attitude.
Examples of boundaries:
- This year, instead of one week, I want to stay with my parents for three days, and I’ll let them know beforehand.
- I won’t be discussing my love life/career/appearance with Uncle Tom.
- I’ll express my wish to be helped in the kitchen to my partner/children/friends.
- If I start feeling increasingly anxious at any moment, I’ll remove myself physically from that environment, find a quiet place and do a breathing exercise to calm myself.
Checklist Item #3: Use the Follow-Through Formula
Then, make sure to follow through and set your boundary. If assertiveness isn’t your strongest side, expressing your needs or saying ‘no’ to some people can be quite challenging, causing discomfort, stress, or feelings of guilt.
Once again, remember: self-care isn’t selfish; it’s an act of self-love, and stating your boundaries is your fundamental right.
Here’s a formula that can make the process easier:
Follow-Through Formula for Boundary Setting:
describe how you feel
give details on what triggers your emotions
state your need/wish
“I feel hurt, disrespected, and taken for granted when you don’t help me cook or clean. I want to receive your support and share the chores with you.“
Pro Tips on Boundary Setting:
- less is more: no need to overexplain yourself, stay focused and keep it short
- avoid blaming the other person – instead, talk about yourself and use “I” statements
- pick your battles: don’t hesitate to call others out on any unacceptable or disrespectful behavior but also know when to bite your tongue, let go, and step back from an unpleasant conversation that could turn into a big conflict
Last but not least, it’s crucial to discuss the fact that self-care also means treating yourself like you’d treat a dear friend – with unconditional love, a sea of acceptance, kindness, gentleness, and empathy.
The holiday season can be tough for us, stirring up feelings of sadness, anxiety, stress, and more. Yet, so often, we fall into the trap of scolding ourselves and engaging in negative self-talk, pushing ourselves too far, and setting unrealistic expectations.
What if, instead of disrespecting ourselves like that, we’d cultivated self-compassion in that challenging period?
Some holiday self-care ideas which foster self-compassion include:
1. Exploring your feelings through journaling:
- Carve out some ‘me-time’ and check in with yourself daily.
- When putting your thoughts and emotions into words, allow yourself to write without judgment. Simply let it out.
- Notice any shifts in your state as you keep on journaling.
- Try describing your feelings in detail, explaining the context and any triggers which caused them.
2. Approaching any discomfort with a mindful attitude:
- Become aware of your bodily sensations and scan your body for any areas of tension.
- Take time to slow your breathing, inhale and exhale deeply with closed eyes.
- Don’t suppress or avoid discomfort, but acknowledge and accept painful thoughts or emotions. Remind yourself that they’re your mental events, not facts. Whenever you feel ready, let them go.
3. Practicing gratitude:
- While anxiety makes you fixate on the dangers or things you’ve done wrong, gratitude broadens that tunnel vision, allowing you to notice the beauty in your life.
- Before going to bed or right after waking up, spend 5 minutes listing 10 things you’re grateful for.
- It can be anything from the chirping birds you heard outside your window, the delicious Thanksgiving turkey your mom prepared, or the fact that you have family members or friends to lean on.
To sum up – the holiday season can be intense, filled with cheer, festivities, and a sense of togetherness, but also busyness, exhaustion, potential family conflicts, and other challenges.
And such is life – imperfect.
Taking that into consideration, it’s exceedingly important to understand the role that prioritizing your needs and engaging in self-care has during holidays. Undeniably, it is your well-being that should take center stage in the whirlwind of family gatherings, gift shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating, and so on.
The good news is now you know how to prepare yourself mentally and plan ahead of time to handle these hurdles best and have an enjoyable experience that you can treasure later on.
I invite you to use the upcoming holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, as an opportunity to gift yourself the peace of mind and nourishment of the soul you truly deserve!