Let’s face it: As much as we hype up the holidays, November and December can be super stressful times. Maybe the overly packed schedule just feels like too much. Perhaps the thought of gathering with family makes you want to curl up in your bed and not leave. Whatever’s contributing to your overwhelm, taking proactive steps to protect your emotional well-being is more important than ever this time of year.
Looking for some practical ways to take care of yourself? Here are 12 simple-but-impactful ways to boost your mental health around the holidays, according to experts and people who’ve been through it themselves.
Follow your values
Lots of times, unnecessary stress stems from making choices that don’t actually align with what you care about. Pay attention to what you’re dreading this holiday season and make an effort to cut out events, activities, and mindsets that don’t serve you (especially if they’re blatantly tough for your mental health). “I never want to drag my family to an event or activity just because it’s the ‘thing to do’ or because someone else thought we should be there,” says Rebekah, a copywriter and stay-at-home mom. “We all deserve to rest during the holidays, to feel un-obligated, and to have the opportunity and space to do things that bring us joy.”
Enlist a support system
If the holidays are a particularly hard time of year for you, plan some emotional support ahead of time. Joseph DeVasto, program support staff lead at The Ohana Addiction Treatment Center, suggests reaching out to your support system ahead of the holiday and letting them know you may need some extra care this time of year—text check-ins, calls, whatever feels good. It’s easy to isolate when you’re feeling low, but letting others know how you feel can provide a lifeline when you’re struggling.
Take a deep breath
When you’re anxious or upset, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. One easy way to escape that stress response? Take a big, deep breath. Publicist Dana O’Malley says when she notices herself in overwhelm territory, she often finds that she hasn’t been paying attention to her breathing. For that reason, she makes an intentional effort during the holidays to take a step back and breathe in and out deeply several times, away from the chaos.
Keep your meds on standby
If you take mental health medication, make sure you don’t miss a dose amidst the holiday chaos. Writer Chelsey Mead plans to keep her meds prepped for each day near her bed with a glass of water so she can continue feeling her best around the holidays. Make sure your meds are refilled, too, in case your pharmacy is closed.
Plan some self-care breaks
When your schedule is extra busy, you’ll need time to recover physically and emotionally, but once the holidays are in full swing, it’s hard to find time to pause.
Marriage and family therapist Kelley Stevens recommends scheduling a massage between holiday events or setting up a date with a trusted friend to make sure you have resources for your well-being when you need them most.
Keep track of your wins
High-stress times like the holidays can make it tough to remember all the good stuff. In moments like these, your mind may need some gentle guidance to veer away from anxious thinking. That’s exactly why Sarah Knox, an auctioneer and event host in Minnesota, takes time around the holidays to keep track of small successes from earlier in the year. Try journaling each morning about something you’re proud of from the year prior, and notice how it boosts your spirits.
Be mindful about alcohol
A glass of wine or a holiday cocktail may provide the illusion of relaxation, but drinking alcohol can mess with your sleep, dehydrate you, and drain your mood. That’s why, as the holidays approach, interior designer Kathleen Anderson occasionally swaps out alcohol for a hot mug of cozy herbal tea.
Keep up your routines
Your calendar is probably fuller than usual these days, which is all the more reason to keep up with the routines that protect your mental and physical well-being. Author and psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo suggests doing your best to maintain your normal sleep, eating, and exercise habits through November and December—you’ll feel more organized and prepared, and you’ll be less likely to slip into a funk if you have a predictable framework built into your schedule.
Give back to others
Ever notice how doing something nice for someone else can be a major mood booster? If the hustle and bustle is getting to you, therapist Laura Rippeon says helping other people (or animals!) is a great way to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and to boost your compassion for yourself and others. Whether you buy a gift for the elderly woman on your block or check in with a grieving friend, make an intentional effort to add a little kindness to the world.
Build in self-therapy
For those who normally go to therapy, connecting with your therapist may not be an option around the holidays (or you may just be too busy). Therapist Kailey Hockridge suggests building a replacement hour into your schedule. “It’s alright to skip therapy every now and then, but it’s good to stick with the habit of setting aside time for yourself like you’d usually do for that appointment,” she says. “Be mindful for that hour and use it to do something that allows you to connect with yourself or hit pause on the rest of your day in a way that feels good for you.”
Set boundaries with your family
We all have family members who don’t bring out the best in us. You may feel obligated to show up to holiday gatherings, but if even the thought of seeing certain people is taking a toll on your mental well-being, you have every right to politely decline invitations and do your own thing. Going to see family, but looking for a way to reduce stress? Michelle Manuel, a church minister, suggests avoiding conversation topics that could be triggering and opting to stay in a hotel or Airbnb, separate from your loved ones.
Ease your expectations
So much of our stress stems from holding ourselves (and others) to unrealistic standards. This holiday season, do your best to drop the “shoulds” and shift your expectations to be more compassionate and realistic. “When we ease our grip on how things ‘should’ be, we free ourselves to be in the moment as it happens—which, if you ask me, is where the sweet stuff of life actually happens,” says meditation teacher Brenton Harris.