In a “normal” year, the holiday season is viewed by many as a joyful time to celebrate with family and friends, attend or host parties and spend hours at the mall shopping for the perfect gifts. For others, however, this time of year may be a stressful trigger that can elevate mental health problems, increase feelings of loneliness and isolation, or intensify grief for lost loved ones. And in this unprecedented year, there is the added burden of being in the middle of a pandemic that affects all of us in one way or another. Holidays aside, stress, anxiety and depression have skyrocketed as people try to navigate their way with so much uncertainty.
This article is part of our wellness series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
While social distancing has been a real challenge, it’s interesting to see how so many people have found ways to adapt for the short-term. The phrase “necessity is the mother of invention“ really rings true as we find more creative ways to connect with one another. This may never be more important than during the holidays this year. It will undoubtedly be different for a lot of folks, especially those who cannot gather with family or must forego long-held Christmas traditions.
To help you make the best of the holidays this year, here are five tips for managing your stress and bolstering your mental health.
1. Reach Out and Connect with Others
Even though you can’t spend time with family and friends in the same way you normally would, that does not mean you can’t be social! Whether it’s through Zoom, FaceTime or other a call, make an effort to schedule connections. Also, consider taking the time to reach out to people you know are alone. They may be struggling silently—even more than usual this year—and your gesture of kindness will be very meaningful to them.
2. Steer Clear of Sugar and Alcohol
If you follow my work you know I believe that food is medicine, or it is poison. Sugar-laden treats tend to be prevalent during the holidays, but sugar is one of the most harmful foods for your mental and physical health. It increases inflammation and decreases brain activity, which can make it harder to resist those sweet temptations. Poor dietary choices adversely impact mood and stress. As an alternative, choose healthy, low-sugar treats made with fresh fruit and nuts instead.
I also encourage you to stay away from alcohol. The temporary escape may feel pleasant in the moment, but alcohol decreases brain activity too and consequently affects judgment, decision-making and impulse control. This can lead not only to overindulgence, but also to seeking out conflict with others at the Christmas dinner table—and that’s no fun for anyone! In addition, alcohol worsens depression. Stick to water chilled with slices of fruit or low-sugar hot apple cider spiced with cinnamon instead.
3. Stay Active and Sleep Well
It’s really important to maintain your fitness regimen as much as possible during the holidays. Exercise is one of the easiest and most effective ways to manage stress and your overall mental and physical health. In this unique year, we’ve all had to adapt by finding new ways to exercise due to the requirements of social distancing. When you can, take your workout outside. Walking and hiking with family and friends are wonderful ways to de-stress and connect with others.
Plus, not only does regular exercise help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, it can also help you sleep better. Getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep nightly is optimal, so be sure to avoid caffeine in the afternoon and turn off your devices at least 1 to 2 hours prior to bedtime. The blue light they emit stimulates brain activity which is definitely not what you want when you’re trying to fall asleep! Consider reading a (real) book instead to help you unwind and lull you into dreamland.
4. Engage in Prayer or Meditation
One of the most powerful ways to support your mental health is by staying grounded with prayer or meditation. A regular practice of quieting your mind and connecting with your spirituality helps you better manage life’s stressors. It can also provide you with greater clarity about what’s important in your life. Especially this year with its multitude of challenges, staying connected to your faith helps to give greater meaning to even the small things in life.
And, while you may not be able to attend church in person right now, many churches are providing services online. Yes, it’s a little different but it’s still a great way to join together with those who share your faith.
5. Practice Gratitude
Make an effort to identify at least 3 things each day for which you are grateful. During times of hardship, it can be easy to slip into focusing on what you don’t have. But doing so can really impact your mental health in a bad way. Choosing to count your blessings instead leads to increased feelings of hopefulness and optimism—and a greater sense of well-being. Gratitude helps remind you about all that you do still have in your life, such as the ability to stay connected with family and friends, even if it’s in a new way this holiday season.
I know we can get through this together!
Tana Amen is a New York Times bestselling author, vice president of the Amen Clinics, a neurosurgical ICU trauma nurse, and a world-renowned health and fitness expert. She has won the hearts of millions with her simple yet effective strategies to help anyone optimize their lifestyle and win the fight for a strong body, mind, and spirit. Tana holds a second-degree black belt in Kenpo Karate and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Tana and her husband, Dr. Daniel Amen, have four children and five grandchildren. Her latest book, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child: How Persistence, Grit, and Faith Created a Reluctant Healer, will release nationwide January 5, 2021. Purchase it at relentlesscourage.com.