Surviving the holidays: 8 self-care steps to help you enjoy the holiday season
Holidays can be both joyous and stressful times of the year. As veterinarians, holidays bring busy times and good business. However, they also bring cranky owners, financial constraints worsen, and emergencies often increase. People may push off pet care because they are too busy taking care of family, buying presents for kids, or because they have so much going on that they cannot pencil in one more task. Taking care of one’s mental health during the holiday season becomes even more critical to prevent burnout, compassion fatigue, and illnesses. Of course, I should also practice what I am writing. A bit of self-care goes a long way.
One Health & Mental Health During the Holidays
On November 3, 2022, we celebrated One Health Day, recognizing the need to address common global concerns affecting human, animal, and environmental convergence. (1) The One Health approach allows us to connect all three realms and protect all interests. It is the multidisciplinary community approach to the global health of all. One Health topics include antimicrobial resistance, antimicrobial stewardship, infectious (including zoonotic) diseases, and among many other issues, mental health. Failing to care for one’s health can negatively impact the people, animals, and environment around them.
What some tout as the best time of each year (the holiday season, starting with Halloween for most and ending after New Year’s Day or maybe Valentine’s Day) can also be the worst time of year for others. Some feel lonely (a lack of social connectedness), while others experience and enjoy togetherness. Still, some have too many social interactions and feel practically smothered. Some experience gratitude, while others are too stressed to enjoy the time. Too many social commitments or tasks can make the holidays too hectic and leave you feeling hollow and underwhelmed, even disappointed.
Stress isn’t just a feeling. It can cause physiological changes in your body that can increase your chances of developing high blood pressure, weakening your immune system, muscle tension, headaches, insomnia, irritability, nausea, sleepiness, and even chest tightness. The holidays are notorious for increasing these feelings and creating emotional turmoil for many. (2)
Taking care of yourself during the holidays!
Even if you are a happy-go-lucky person, changes in daylight length and seasons can affect you too. Holidays, the changing season, daylight savings, and decreased daylight hours confuse our circadian rhythm, and we all need a little time to adjust. Stress, too many commitments, and balancing work and family while trying to take some time for self-care can be challenging on an average day. Throw in the holidays and things can creep up on us in a flash.
Suppose you already suffer from anxiety, depression, or loneliness or live a stressed lifestyle. In that case, the holidays are more likely to increase mental health challenges. Knowing this ahead of time helps you to take action before concerns arise. If you suffer from chronic ailments, you, too, may be at higher risk for complications, developing anxiety, or depression. You should also take care of yourself and minimize stress during the holidays. Anyone can feel the pressure, increased stressors, and demands this time of year can bring.
8 Steps to help you handle holiday pressures
There are many things you can do, which to some may seem silly or obvious but have allowed me to get through some tough times. Steps may include:
Step One: Daily affirmations
Take time daily or weekly (whatever works for you) to write down your positive affirmations. (3) Acknowledging what you are grateful for helps put the good things in perspective with the bad. I recommend jotting these down, recording them in a cognitive behavior app such as excel at life, or even just saying them out loud. Doing this before you go to bed or unwind for the night helps you end your day on a positive note.
Step Two: No is not a dirty word
Learn to say no. Try not to take on too much. Know your limitations.
Step Three: Relax
Find a way to relax! For some people, this is deep breathing exercises; for others, it is practicing mindfulness. Some people may want to relax with a good book, listen to classical music or go for a walk. If you do not learn to find the balance between play and work, if you let all the holiday hubbub build up and don’t take time for yourself to let off some steam, you could live to regret it, or those around you may.
Step Four: If mental health issues arise, seek help
If you have any mental health challenges, you are not alone. You do not need to simply grin and bear them. Many people in our profession throw themselves into their work and keep taking on more tasks until they crash and burn. Instead, we need to recognize that we need help and take a few days off from work, seek therapy from a mental health professional, or call a support line (a friend, family member, helpline, or therapist).
Step Five: Plan ahead
- Make lists (daily or weekly to-do lists) but be realistic. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
- Planning ahead allows you to mentally and physically prepare for what is to come.
- However, don’t plan too much or too far in advance, as that can actually increase your stress and anxiety.
- Consider visualizing the day ahead of time to allow confidence in moving forward.
Step Six: Have fun
Holidays aren’t just about obligations. They can also be about spending time with loved ones, giving to others, sharing meals, and much more. It shouldn’t just be about who you have to visit, what you have to do, or who you have to buy presents for, but should also include your time. It’s not fun sending holiday cards if it causes you severe pain and flares your carpal tunnel to address the envelopes. Instead, consider a mass email update and use the extra time to do something for yourself or with your friends and family.
Step Seven: Daily dose of laughter
Do something each day that makes you smile or, ideally, laugh. Play with the puppy in your office, do training with your dog, play with your kids, go for a walk, or whatever helps you to stretch those facial muscles and smile or laugh. Make sure you do it daily! It is excellent for mental health and releases stress. The saying “laughter is the best medicine” isn’t just a tall tale but a truth we all need to remember. (4,5)
Step Eight: Don’t let go of everyday healthy habits
Stay healthy and continue with everyday rituals, practices, and comforts. Eat healthy (though indulging over the holidays can be enjoyable, be sure it’s in moderation). Try to maintain routines such as regular exercise or meditation practices to help support some semblance of structure. Getting sufficient sleep also goes a long way to overall health and well-being. (6)
Remember, emotions are not our enemies
We provide our owners and patients with compassion and empathy, sometimes well-deserved, and other times maybe not so much. But many of us fail to return the favor to ourselves. Don’t be hard on yourself or blame yourself for not living up to your expectations.
Remind yourself that negative emotions surrounding the holidays, family gatherings, and obligations are short-lived. Know that you can take a few deep breaths and get through the good and the bad times. (7)
Reframe stressful thoughts and tasks. Learn to take stress (typically something with negative connotations) and make it a positive experience. Instead of frustrations with buying gifts for people, think of each person and how appreciative you are to have them in your life. This may motivate you to find that perfect gift by reminding yourself who they are and the value they bring to your life. Now that the negative stress turns into a positive feeling and emotion, the task is less a chore than something you want to do.
Be kind to yourself and others
It can be tough to remain calm when anxiety and stress run high. Often during the holiday season, people are far from cheery, usually short with others, and impatient. There are a few ways you are less likely to be negatively affected by others’ moodiness. (3)
- Accept your imperfections.
- Ensure you keep your eye on the prize — your reward, not what others expect.
- What do you have to gain from this year’s holiday experiences?
- Even when you are stressed, remain kind. Rather than replying to rude or angry individuals with curtness or irritability, take a few breaths and respond with compassion and gentleness rather than ire and volume.
Don’t just survive; enjoy the holidays
Holidays are a time to work on your patience. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Learn your limitations and say no. It is a hard word for many of us to say, but sometimes it is the word we need to use. Please think of the holidays as a time to connect with others. Don’t think of it as an obligation. Keep expectations reasonable. Don’t expect to do it all. Take time out for yourself. Take care of your well-being and mental health before trying to fix everyone else’s problems.
Mental health doesn’t get enough focus, yet it plays a crucial role in our capacity to cope with everyday situations, stressors, and all the extras thrown at us. Taking a few steps, such as daily affirmations, planning ahead, and taking time to smile and laugh may make the difference between a peaceful holiday season and an intervention from friends and family concerned for your well-being.
Erica Tramuta-Drobnis, VMD, MPH, CPH is the Founder & CEO ELTD of One Health Consulting, LLC, as well as a freelance writer, consultant, researcher, public health professional and small animal veterinarian.
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). One Health Day. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published October 17, 2022. Accessed November 8, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/one-health-day.html
- Headspace. Managing stress around the holidays. Headspace. Accessed November 8, 2022. https://www.headspace.com/articles/holiday-stress
- Tramuta-Drobnis EL. Taking time out for self-care: One veterinarian’s journey to tai chi. IndeVets. Published February 15, 2022. Accessed February 27, 2022. https://indevets.com/blog/taking-time-out-for-self-care-surviving-covid-19-with-the-practice-of-tai-chi/
- Mora-Ripoll R. Potential health benefits of simulated laughter: A narrative review of the literature and recommendations for future research. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2011;19(3):170-177. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2011.05.003
- Fay B. 7 simple steps to manage holiday stress. Sustainability at Harvard. Published 2014. Accessed November 9, 2022. https://green.harvard.edu/tools-resources/how/7-simple-steps-manage-holiday-stress
- Mayo Clinic Staff. 9 Tips to fend off holiday stress. Mayo Clinic Health System. Published December 3, 2021. Accessed November 8, 2022. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/fend-off-holiday-stress-with-these-tips
- Hendel HJ. Surviving Painful Holiday Emotions. NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. Published November 25, 2020. Accessed November 8, 2022. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/November-2020/Surviving-Painful-Holiday-Emotions