It's descending all aroundus; the jingle-y commercials, ads for Black Friday sales, light displays are sprouting. For better or worse, it's here.
If you're fortunate enough to have family and/or friends to share the holidays with, you probably have a lot to look forward to. If you don't have a close relationship to family or friends, you're prone to feeling especially isolated. This article is for both of you, or anyone who falls in between.
I think the main purpose of having a series of holidays at this time is to compensate for the otherwise dreariness of the season. This time of year (at least in the Great Lakes area), the weather tends to be the bleakest. There's not usually any snow on the ground yet, and this time if year typically features constant overcast, so the color scheme is a huge letdown from the fireworks of October foliage. The daylight shrinks to a minimum and the temperatures drop signfiicantly. Going out becomes more of an unpleasant ordeal, and the temptation is to stay home more and more.
If left unchecked, this can lead to increasing isolation and inactivity. As humans, we need to have social contact and as living creatures, we need to move. When we have neither, our systems get out of balance and the result is stress and depression. Lack of natural sunlight also contributes to this imbalance.
Many factors contribute to oxidative stress, and its effects on the body are widespread, everything from arthritis to depression.
If you're isolated, the stress comes from the unnatural state of being alone as well as the cycle of negative thoughts that come with each reminder that "everybody else" is with somebody and you "should" have untold numbers of invites to parties and that "everybody else" has the perfect family. Those are just a few examples of the categories of thoughts that can come with being alone over the holidays.
If you have those strong connections, you're not immune to holiday stress. You still experience the same lack of daylight, drab colors and cold temperatures. While invitations are welcome, you might stress over how to fit everything in, not overspend or overextend yourself, or simply how to not gain a ton of weight.
For everyone, routines change, some to our liking, some not. Changes in schedule can be more disruptive than you're consciously aware of and it can creep up on you and suddenly you find yourself having a meltdown over the slightest frustration. Changes in diet can also wreak havoc on your mood. It's pretty hard to escape all the sweets that suddenly sprout up everywhere right at your fingertips. Everywhere you go someone is handing you a drink. Especially if you're fighting substance abuse, this time of year can be a real minefield.
There are articles all over the internet on how to cope with holiday stress. These are my suggestions:
1. Keep those debbie downer thoughts away. Or-better yet-instead of being helpless to those thoughts, take the information you're attending to and DO SOMETHING about it.
2. Find ways to have fun, and give yourself permission to have fun in your own way. If large social gatherings are your kind of fun, this season for the most part is for you. But if you're like me and get a little overloaded with too many parties and large family gatherings, you need to find your own source of fun and make a priority of fitting that in to your holiday schedule. For the nature type, there are plenty of outdoor hikes. You can find them through your parks and recreation department or through www.meetup.com. There are also art and craft classes, or you could organize a craft party of your own with a small group of family and friends. This time of year outdoor ice rinks and ski resorts start to open up.
3. Regardless of your tolerance for crowds and chaos, we all need to take time out and engage in self-care. This is a good time of year for reflection. Maybe it's drab outdoors for a reason, and that it's part of the natural cycle to have times of the year where you slow down and turn inward a little bit. It's important to stay in touch with your internal physical and mental state; to rest and recharge. There are some good websites for online scripted meditations and suggestions for self-care on my meditation page.
4. Think ahead about what you want for the holidays and let this guide your planning. Are there certain get togethers that you want to make sure to include? Do you want to make sure you get enough exercise? Set goals and follow a plan. You'll feel more relaxed and in control over the holidays if you do.
5. Be open to new experiences. Sure you should stick to the path you've laid out for yourself, but be a little flexible and leave some extra time and money in case something special comes up. If nothing comes up, then you can put that toward brightening up your life later in the middle of winter. If you're lonely this time of year, it can be tempting to avoid having to go places alone where you don't know anybody. But remember there are groups out there exactly because there are people in your situation that feel it's better to be out and doing something even with just acquaintances than sitting at home feeling bad. Meetup.com is a great place to look for outings, or churches, or parks and recreation programs. Or I'm sure you can think of your own ideas :-)
6. Be protective of your routine. If you normally like getting up early or if you have to work through the holiday season, staying up too late probably won't do much for your mood. In addition, sleep deprivation can lead to inflammation with the physical effects of fatigue and stiffness that again do nothing for your mood. Make sure you keep up self-care. Pack a toothbrush and dental floss just in case you end up spending the night somewhere. Get a gym membership so you make sure you have some access to exercise. Allow time for housework if (like most of us) can't afford to pay someone.
7. Watch your stress levels. Notice if you or someone close to you seems to be verging on overload. It's really okay to change course and cancel something if you are really feeling resistance. It's also okay to limit how much time you spend with family if there is conflict or a serious problem like substance abuse. It's easy to get overscheduled, and to feel pressured to accept last-minute invitations, but you have the right to decline. With those that are important for you to see over the holidays, try to plan with them or talk about what to expect. Expectations can run high especially in romantic relationships. If you've been dating a couple months it can be tempting to think that going through the holidays is going to move things forward, but it can also result in a painful realization that your partner isn't that far along, or maybe not that interested. Balance out your hopes and expectations with plenty of other sources of enrichment and bonding.
8. Stay active or get active. Especially learn to love winter. You really need those few hours of natural daylight to keep up your mood in the winter. I believe there are also benefits to breathing in cold air, that it discourages growth of bacteria and viruses. In the winter, we also spend more time indoors and more likely to share air with people harboring a cold or flu. And there is a natural beauty to winter that can do amazing things for your mood. Join a gym (not so outdoorsy but you can try to get a treadmill near the window) , go on a parks and recreation hike, rake leaves, try a new indoor or winter sport. Some tips for staying warm in winter: Dress in layers, the best layer next to the skin is wool. Cashmere is known t be non-itchy, but most of the better wools now are also itch-free, especially cashmere. To get cashmere on the cheap, just visit any thrift store. Don't over-layer or you'll end up too warm. Just get moving and you'll be amazed at how quickly you'll feel warm.
9. Holidays are a minefield of inflammation-promoting foods loaded with sugar and carbs. A change in diet can really throw you off-whack, causing insomnia, uptick in chronic inflammation and fatigue, to name a few. You can imagine the ways these can be disruptive. Try as much as possible to have at least one meal a day that is in keeping with your normal (presumably healthy) diet. Do some home-cooking, or you could start in the fall to double recipes and freeze an extra casserole for the holidays. Drink plenty of water to help your body flush out toxins. It's not realistic to say no to everything, but there are a few tricks to gracefully curbing your appetite or avoiding overeating. Drink a glass of water before you go. This will delay any feelings of hunger for a while. Fill up first on vegetable and protein foods. Practice mindful eating; slow down to pay attention to the actual taste of food.
10. Don't let the glitz, commercialism and peer pressures of this season override your sense of peace and joy. This is a time of year to strengthen relationships, share the love and review and reset goals. Spend some time reflecting on your relationships and priorities. Get at the heart of what's important to you and let that be your guide
I know that might look like a lot to put on your already overloaded to-do list, but if so, read it again; I'm actually suggesting that you simply rearrange things or actually eliminate a few things. So my wish for you is that you use the holidays as an opportunity to recharge and enrich yourself, and get yourself in the bes condition to be ready for the challenges of the coming year, whatever they may be.
Now get out there and have some holiday joy!