15 Self-Care Tools to Support your Mental Health During the Holidays
The holidays are always stressful, but this year is gearing up to be even more intense. COVID-19 cases are rising across the country, 12 million Americans are unemployed, and 19 million could face eviction in January.
In addition, many people will not see their families for the winter holidays and will miss their cherished traditions.
This December, it’s more important than ever to support your mental health with some self-care.
What is “Self-Care?”
“Self-care” is the process of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health. Basically, things you do to support your wellbeing – physical, emotional, and spiritual – are self-care.
Self-care is often unglamorous; it’s making your bed, sweeping your floors, or doing the dishes. It’s setting-up auto draft on your monthly bills so you don’t have to scramble at the end of the month.
What Isn’t “Self-Care?”
- You don’t have to buy anything to practice self-care.
The term, “self-care” has been co-opted as a marketing buzzword. Many items – like bath bombs, sheet masks, and wine – are marketed as self-care tools. Such things are nice and can bring you a moment of joy or relaxation, but they aren’t necessary to practicing self-care.
Taking a bath can be a great way to care for oneself; it’s a warm, relaxing environment where you can clean your body and relieve some stress. But the bath bomb isn’t a vital component.
Self-care is free; it doesn’t come from a store. It’s a gift you give yourself by being intentional with your time and energy.
- Avoidance is not self-care.
Too often, companies push the message that “self-care” is equal to “indulgence.” In fact, self-care is about prioritizing one’s needs over indulgences. A glass of wine is nice, but if you pop the cork to “relax” after pushing-off urgent to-dos off until tomorrow, you’re not truly caring for yourself. That stress will be worse in the morning.
Necessary tasks should not be postponed in the name of “caring” for oneself. Some unpleasant tasks (like paying bills or answering work emails) have to be completed.
It’s important to set boundaries for oneself, but it’s also important to recognize that you might feel a lot better once you’ve finished doing something you hate.
What Does Self-Care Look Like During the Holidays?
For many Americans, the holidays are already the busiest and most stressful time of the year. This year’s added pressures (fear of illness, missing loved ones, and being cooped-up inside) could make an already fraught time even worse.
If you struggle with depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, or you’re just feeling extra stressed this winter, here are some self-care strategies that can help you get through the holidays.
- Eat something
You’re probably familiar with the term “hangry” – when you’re so hungry, your mood turns sour. This portmanteau isn’t just clever; it’s perceptive. Some conditions (like depression and ADHD) cause people to lose their appetite or forget to eat. If you’re feeling terrible and aren’t sure why, grab a piece of fruit or make some peanut butter toast. You may feel an instant lift in your spirits.
- Take a shower
Hygiene is the most basic expression of self-care. Most people consider bathing to be automatic, but when you’re in the throes of a mental health crisis, these daily rituals often fall by the wayside.
Depression and anxiety can make a person believe they don’t need or deserve to be clean.
Particularly this year, when social gatherings are few and far between, you might have asked yourself, “Why shower? It’s not like I’m going to see anyone.” But, of course, you will see you. When you look in the mirror and see a disheveled face looking back, it can reinforce negative self-talk and make your mood even worse.
- Go to bed at the same time every night
Routines are important for mental health. Humans are creatures of habit, and our brains respond well to patterns. A nightly bedtime ritual signals to your brain that the day is over, and it’s time to rest.
The amount of time it takes a person to fall asleep is called “sleep latency.” A 2005 study showed that going to bed and waking up at the same time every day reduced the subject’s sleep latency from 111 minutes on average to 46 minutes.
In the last 5 days of the study, the average was 9 minutes, suggesting that the longer a person sticks to their routine, the more easily they’ll fall asleep.
Studies show that students of all ages (from preschool to college) fared better on literacy and math tests when they went to bed at the same time every night. Research even suggests that our sleep schedule may be more important than the actual length of your rest period. 8 nightly hours of sleep on a variable schedule isn’t as beneficial as 5 hours adhering to a timetable.
- Do some meal prep
Sometimes the best thing you can do is set your future self up for success. If you struggle to find time to cook each day, try setting aside an afternoon or a weekend day to make your week’s meals in advance. This will keep you from grabbing junk food on the way home from work because you’re too exhausted to throw together a meal.
- Tidy your living space
“Messy bed, messy head.” It’s amazing how much our surroundings impact our mood. When your brain is swimming with anxiety, a chaotic living environment can make you feel even more out of control. You don’t have to clean your whole house in one go, though.
Try doing 15 minutes of tidying each day. Pick a room and focus on one area that needs some attention. Sort the pile of papers on your desk or vacuum a single room. These bite-sized cleaning sprees will instantly make your house look better, which might ease the chaos swirling in your head.
- Make the phone calls you’ve been avoiding
Everyone has it on their to-do list: the phone call that will likely take only 15 minutes, but has been hanging over your head for months.
A survey from BankMyCell showed that 81% of millennial respondents have anxiety surrounding phone calls.
Unfortunately, putting-off a necessary call won’t ease your stress; it just delays it. The longer you wait, the more of a burden it becomes, and the more likely a person is to engage in negative self-talk: “Why haven’t you done this yet? It would be so easy. You’re just lazy.”
Self-care isn’t about instant gratification but laying the groundwork for a healthy mind. An unfun activity, like sitting on hold with the IRS, may be frustrating in the moment. But the weight that lifts when you cross that item off your to-do list is worth it.
- Make a budget
Speaking of things that aren’t fun while you’re doing them, do you have a budget? Or do you fly by the seat of your financial pants? If you find money overwhelming and stress-inducing, it could be that you’re not familiar enough with your finances to feel secure.
It is easy to overspend during the holidays. Buying presents for people is fun, and aggressive sales and marketing mean you end up buying things not just for your loved ones, but for yourself. A little retail therapy can be nice from time to time, but if you’re ignoring your bank account while you indulge, you’re racking-up future stress for yourself.
If you haven’t already, find a few hours to sit down with a notebook or spreadsheet and figure out exactly how much you can afford to spend on the people you love. Remember that giving gifts isn’t a competition – the amount you spend on a person isn’t proportionate to the love you have for them.
- Practice a hobby
As children, we have tons of time to play and explore different activities. The older we get, the easier it is to let recreation fall by the wayside. Think about the things you love to do, and ask yourself, when was the last time you engaged with them?
Maybe you love making model airplanes, or singing, or reading? When you’re stressed-out, recreational activities can seem frivolous. But hobbies are fantastic for one’s mental health.
Self-care doesn’t just engage your body and your mind; it also soothes your spirit. When you engage in an activity you love, you are honoring yourself.
Now, there can be too much of a good thing. If you have an approaching work deadline, taking a whole day off to play video games isn’t self-care but an avoidance tactic. Instead, try waking up early and playing for a half-hour before you shower. Starting your day with something enjoyable can make everything that follows feel just a little bit better.
- Set boundaries
Work is important, but it has its time and place. Unfortunately, cell phones and laptops make us reachable even when we are off the clock. Have you ever glanced at your work email on your day off, only to get sucked into fixing a problem?
When you’re done with your workday, try to be done with workday communications. Log out of your email or silence notifications. Programs like
Slack allow you to set active hours, so you are only reachable when you want to be.
But boundaries aren’t just for work. They are also important in interpersonal relationships.
During the holidays, you might feel like you’re stretched to the breaking point by family or social obligations. This year may not feature the usual crunch of overlapping Christmas parties, but there will surely be competing forces that threaten to sap your energy.
Maybe you’re nervous about going to your aunt’s house because you know she hasn’t been socially distancing? Or maybe you’re worried your dad will bring-up politics at the dinner table?
It is healthy to set boundaries and let other people know when you will not participate in an activity or discussion.
Remember, “No thank you,” is a complete sentence. You are allowed to prioritize your mental health and stay home if an event seems toxic.
- Carve out time for the people you miss
On the other hand, social isolation is already taking a massive toll on many people, and that problem is bound to be compounded over the coming weeks.
Millions of people will not be seeing their loved ones for Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year’s. It is a depressing cherry on top of a difficult year.
Make the time to check-in with your family and friends, even if you cannot see them in person.
Checking-in with someone doesn’t have to take long. It can feel overwhelming to contact someone you haven’t spoken to in a while; those phone calls can become interminable. Instead, try checking-in for short spurts with more frequency.
Try calling someone and saying, “I only have about 5 minutes to talk, but this made me think of you, and I wanted to say hi.” These quick check-ins keep your lines of communication open and eliminate the burden of hours-long “catch-up” calls.
When we’re lonely, it’s easy to think that no one wants to hear from us, but that’s not true. A ten-minute phone call from an old friend can put a smile on your face that lasts the rest of the day.
- Keep a journal
While you’re checking-in with others, make sure you check-in with yourself. Anxiety and depression can become so overwhelming that one’s inner monologue is drowned-out with worry and fear. It can help pick up a pen and work some of those thoughts out on paper and see what is behind them.
One of the hallmarks of an anxiety disorder is obsessive thought patterns. Your brain may get stuck on a particular worry, and it becomes impossible to put it aside. This can lead to “catastrophizing,” or assuming that the worst-case scenario will always come true.
Try writing down your worries – something that seems inevitable when it’s clanging around in your brain may be revealed as irrational on paper.
Stream-of-consciousness writing is the process of writing down exactly what comes to your brain without stopping to edit yourself. It can be cathartic to write or type a “rant” exactly as it comes to you, and you may find that once the thoughts are on paper, they take up less space in your mind.
- Move your body
Exercise isn’t just good for your body; it’s good for your mind. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression.”
Exercise doesn’t have to be high-impact to have a high impact on your disposition. Try incorporating 15 minutes of yoga or light stretching into your morning routine. Or take a walk after dinner and look at the Christmas lights in your neighborhood.
Not only does exercise release chemicals in the brain that make you happier, but it also leads to improved cognitive function and self-image. If you don’t know where to start, YouTube has a wide variety of free channels where trainers lead you through a program. Try this beginner’s playlist from Yoga With Adrienne.
- Limit alcohol, caffeine, and other mood-altering substances
When you’re in a fragile emotional state, it can be tempting to turn to substances. A cup of coffee to get you moving or a glass of wine to wind down isn’t the end of the world, but they can sometimes be more harmful than helpful.
Alcohol and caffeine can both disrupt your sleep. Caffeine makes it much harder to fall asleep, and alcohol makes it difficult to stay asleep. Rest is key for an aching brain, and when you don’t get enough of it, your disposition suffers.
Caffeine can also exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety. Several anxiety indicators (like restlessness, racing heart rate, and gastrointestinal problems) are identical to the effects of over-caffeination. If you suffer from anxiety, your brain may interpret those physical symptoms as a fear-based reaction, kicking-off a panic attack.
If you feel you need caffeine to start your day, try switching to tea instead of coffee. Tea has less caffeine per cup, so you can stave off a headache and lower your caffeine intake.
Meditation is a mindfulness practice that helps to center your emotions in the present moment. Anxiety places your mind in the future; it causes you to focus on future hypotheticals instead of dealing with the present moment.
- Limit your time on social media
It’s incredible that FOMO (or Fear of Missing Out) still exists in 2020, but it’s true. Somehow, even during a pandemic, there are still people flying worldwide, going on adventures, and posting their pictures on Instagram. If you are stuck at home, you may start to feel like you are the odd-man-out, and everyone else is having fun without you.
Kick the comparison game to the curb by spending less time on social media. These tools were ostensibly invented so people could communicate with one another, but they rarely lead to meaningful conversations.
It’s challenging to discuss sensitive topics with a person when you can’t see each other’s body language or hear tone of voice. Discussions on Facebook or Twitter can easily become hostile because you are misinterpreting each other’s words.
Worse still, it can be tempting to argue with strangers. If you’re already overwhelmed with stress, jumping into a debate will probably not make you feel much better. Save your energy for conversations with people you know and care about, and don’t feed the internet trolls.
Getting Help with Self-Care
Of course, many of these things are easier said than done. When you are in the middle of a depressive episode, a night of meal-planning or budget-setting can sound impossible. If life is too overwhelming, and you can’t imagine completing any of the items on this list, it’s probably best to seek help from a professional.
Depression does not have to rule your life – not seasonally, not ever.
Contact The Becoming to speak with a Client Coordinator and let them match you with one of our Nashville based licensed counselors.
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