Simple tips to keep your holidays healthy

Beat the holiday blues and blahs

by Benjamin Balderson, PhD, Group Health Research Institute research associate and Group Health clinical psychologist

The holiday season can be a joyous time for many. But it can also bring on some not-so-healthy behaviors such as too much alcohol, overeating, emotional stress, and even depression. As a psychologist, I'm often asked by my patients for ways to survive the holiday season.

Practice holiday self-care with these practical tips.

Beat the blues beforehand

Seeing family, remembering past times, or seasonal affective disorder can contribute to feeling down during this time of year. Here are some ways to fight the holiday blues:

  • Stick with your exercise
    This time of year can bring extra work, more social invitations, and increased financial pressure. When there’s so much going on, it’s easy to drop your usual physical activity. Exercise can help to improve mood and relieve stress—while helping burn those extra holiday calories. 
  • Get outside
    It can be hard to get enough light and fresh air at this time of year. Try to build some outdoor time into your daily schedule. The vitamin D from the sun can boost your energy.
  • Seek positive social support
    Not all family and friends are created equal. Make sure to have contact with people who lift your spirits or give you the support you need. 
  • Practice gratitude
    It’s easy to feel overwhelmed during this time. Taking moments to reflect on what is going well or making a daily list of things we are grateful can increase a sense of well-being.
  • Get care when you need it
    If you notice that you typically get depressed in the winter months, talk to your doctor. Setting up a “coping plan” in advance can help.

Be mindful of your alcohol use

Whether it’s because of holiday fun or holiday stress, alcohol and drug use tends to spike at this time of year. Here are some tips for those who drink:

  • Remember your limits
    Try to keep alcohol use to 1–2 drinks per day.
  • Enjoy a non-alcoholic drink
    Having them between drinks that contain alcohol can help.
  • Ask yourself why you are drinking
    Is it because of stress, social obligation, or to try to have fun? Understanding our motivation can help us find healthier alternatives. 
  • Be a designated driver
    Keep yourself and your loved ones safe while taking pressure off yourself to drink.

For those who don’t drink because of problems with alcohol, remind them to:

  • Be pro-active
    This is a high-risk time for relapse, so plan ahead.
  • Stick to your program
    Plan for more meetings and more support.
  • Avoid your triggers
    It is okay to miss a party or not see someone. Give yourself permission to do what is best for you. 

Enjoy holiday treats—without overdoing it

This is an easy time to indulge in too much food. But we can still enjoy the holidays without stuffing ourselves. Here’s how:

  • Eat what's best for you first
    Fill up on healthy foods before you go to a party, or offer to bring a healthy dish to a potluck. This can help decrease temptations for high-calories food.
  • Get some distance from the snacks
    Standing away from the buffet table will help you avoid impulsive grabs for food.
  • A piece, not the pie
    Limiting portion sizes can be a great way to enjoy a taste of that yummy treat without going overboard.
  • Heart-healthy holiday recipes can help
    Check out our post from last year on healthy holiday eats. 

Shake off holiday stress

Increased stress during the holidays is common, but it can decrease our enjoyment and even lead us to dread holiday events. It can also make us more likely to catch the cold or flu. These tips will help you cope with holiday stress:

  • Don’t overdo it
    It’s important to pace yourself. Consider shortening a holiday trip to one or two nights instead of three or four—or plan to stay a couple hours at a party rather than all night. Set healthy limits on socializing, spending, and shopping—and try not to sweat the small stuff.
  • Try a different approach
    If you have a holiday tradition or a family gathering that is always stressful, try doing it differently. Explore ways to make it more fun—or decide to simply take it off the list this year.
  • Do something for yourself
    Make time for yourself and slow down a bit—even if that means taking just one moment to breathe and relax. These moments can ease stress and help you enjoy special times even more.

Remember it's ok to be you

Not everyone celebrates during the traditional American holiday season. Some of us are single or divorced, without children, originate from cultures that celebrate at other times, or for many other reasons find ourselves alone during November and December.

  • Take it easy on yourself
    It’s ok to be you, wherever you are in life. If you’re not quite where you want to be, remind yourself that there’s time to change things up. Be gentle with yourself.
  • Spend quality time with you
    Winter is a great season to catch up on reading, writing in a journal, or trying new recipes just for your own tastes.
  • Notice what really brings you joy
    Everyone is different in this regard. You may feel happy walking your dog, watching the snow fall, chatting with your neighbors, sitting quietly by yourself, or dancing to loud music. These little moments, when noticed, can add to a sense of peace inside.

From watching alcohol intake to eating mindfully to pacing activities, these self-care suggestions can be powerful ways to help make the season calm and bright. 

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Implementing Innovations into Practice, a dissemination platform project of GHRI's MacColl Center for Health Care Innovation and the Institute of Translational Health Sciences.