The holiday season was notorious for causing loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and a sense of loss even before adding the COVID-19 pandemic to the mix. The pandemic has only served to magnify many of these feelings, as gatherings with loved ones are postponed or canceled. The stress of getting everything done on time and navigating family dynamics can lead to struggles that can benefit from support and self-care. In 2021, support doesn’t have to mean long waiting lists or spending hours in therapy — there are new, faster options — and self-care can be done at home to help you plot a course that will start you off on the right foot as we ring in the New Year.
Taking time for self-care is important. Self-care can help you maintain the resilience you need to navigate challenging times. Taking care of yourself can mean different things to different people, and many benefit from taking a multipronged approach to self-care when time allows. Here are 10 approaches to self-care that can help you get through the holiday season and into the New Year:
1. Mindfulness meditation. Research shows that mindfulness meditation can improve relaxation and sleep. It’s also shown to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. An added benefit is weight management, which can be a battle during the holiday season. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to help people both lose weight and keep it off.
2. Do something that makes you happy. This could be something as familiar as taking your dog for a walk, to something entirely new, like learning a new skill or trying a new activity that’s been on your bucket list, like skydiving or learning to knit. Research has shown that leisure activities are associated with improved mood and lower stress while trying new things can give you a sense of pride, build your confidence, and create new memories that can bring you a sense of joy for years to come.
3. Take a break. It’s OK to take breaks — your body and mind need them. Breaks are a great way to break the stress cycle and clear your head. If you find yourself having difficulty concentrating, lacking energy or motivation, feeling frustrated or blue or even feeling unfocused and fuzzy, it may be time to take a break to rejuvenate. This could mean taking a hike, watching your favorite TV show, or sitting down for a brief mindfulness meditation session.
4. Be kind to yourself. Avoid trying to do too much and recognize your triggers so you can find ways to avoid them. If crowded stores stress you out, rearrange your schedule to shop at less busy times. If discussing politics makes steam come out of your ears, you could ask your family to avoid speaking about politics during the holidays to reduce everyone’s level of stress.
5. Modify your expectations. Focus on the good — the joys of being around family you haven’t seen for a year, for example. Be gentle with yourself — and don’t expect to recreate the “perfect holiday” photos you sometimes see on social media. No holiday is perfect, so try to focus on the true meaning of the holidays and the positive feelings you get from being around those you love.
6. Maintain good sleep habits. Getting enough sleep is crucial to sustaining your stress resilience and avoiding depression. Good sleep hygiene, such as avoiding use of mobile devices close to bedtime, going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, and avoiding late-night meals and alcohol, are ways to improve your sleep health.
7. Don’t forget to exercise. Exercise can improve mental health, especially if it involves aerobic activity that gets your heart pumping. It’s easy to trim exercise from your schedule when life gets hectic, but exercise can help you handle the stress and avoid holiday weight gain.
8. Seek out sunshine. Many people can tell, inherently, that sunlight makes them feel better, but research also suggests greater time spent in the sunshine can lower your risk of depression, increase happiness, reduce symptoms of insomnia and decrease fatigue. Finding time to get outdoors is an easy and important way to take care of yourself.
9. Start a gratitude journal. This may sound like just one more thing to get done, but it’s easy, fast, and research shows it can make you feel less depressed while improving wellbeing and self-esteem. All it takes is a few minutes each night to think of things you are grateful for. Jot them down in a journal you’ve dedicated to tracking feelings of gratitude. Writing down the things, people, events or experiences you are grateful for gives you an opportunity to remember the positive emotions that went with them.
10. Check your employee benefits Many health plans are offering non-traditional benefits, like coverage for massage, gym memberships and acupuncture. Depending on what your plan offers, reviewing your benefits may give you an entirely new idea for self-care that would come at a reduced cost through your health plan or employer-sponsored benefits package.
Sometimes self-care is not enough. Don’t be afraid to seek professional support. Options exist for busy professionals, like frontline health care workers, who may not have time for weekly, one-hour, in-person therapy sessions and don’t want to sit on a waiting list for months.
Digital mental health apps have increased access to mental health care for people around the world. You can find services that fit your specific needs, often on a 24/7/365 basis, so if you need support in the middle of the night, it’s there. Digital apps can include resource libraries, artificial intelligence-driven chatbots that tailor the treatment they provide to your responses, and digital coaching from credentialed mental health professionals at any hour of the day or night from the privacy of your home. Busy schedules or concerns about stigma no longer need to hold people back from getting the support they need, so if the holidays have you struggling, help is available.
Zereana Jess-Huff is a counselor and health care executive.
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