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We hear a lot these days about how holidays can be stressful and that many people struggle with their mental health this time of year.  I’ve written in an earlier post about some considerations for how you can support those loves ones with mental health concerns during the holidays.  However, holidays can also be a time to reflect on some other themes that can be truly beneficial to your mental health.  It’s important that we remember that the holidays are not a joyous time for everyone, but let’s also look at some of the benefits of celebrating during the holiday season and the positive things that traditions, time with family, and seasonal giving bring to our personal and cultural mental health.

Here are some important ways that the holidays can give you a little mental health boost if you’re feeling burnt out, moody, or disheartened.

  1. Spending time with family and friends

Spending time with your loved ones is the best part of the holidays. Perhaps you only see some of your friends during that annual holiday party, or maybe your family lives far away and so traveling to see them during the holidays is one of the few ways you can stay in touch.  Keeping connections with people that you care about is an important way that we foster positive relationships with our support network.  Sometimes, you may only see some of your family every few years, or even longer.  This makes the times spent together all the more meaningful and important. Family bonding time is especially important for children, so be sure to call, hug, FaceTime, and spend time with the children in your life, whether that be your nieces and nephews, other close family friends, or your own children. There will be times when you may need to set boundaries with the people that are unhealthy in your life, and make more of an effort to spend quality time with the people that bring positivity into your life. Whether that’s making a trip to see you grandmother or opting to have Friendsgiving with your favorite peer group, the holidays are a great time to focus on the value of the important people in your life.

2. Getting time off from work and/or school

Taking a vacation has proven mental health benefits, whether you do a staycation or travel abroad. Obviously, not everyone gets to take time off at the holidays, so if you do, then recognize that this is a great opportunity renew yourself, even if it is just for a few days.  A new study notes that while previous research has validated the benefits of a 7-day vacation, even shorter vacations (4 nights) can result in marked improvements in stress levels, mental recovery, and well-being. These benefits are still effective up to 45 days later. Most Americans could use more time off work, because stress from overwork makes you sick and burnt out and many workers get limited paid vacation time, if any.  However, this is the time of year when many people are planning to take some vacation days, travel to spend time with family, and recharge a little before the New Year. So if you have the opportunity and are able to take some time off of work, take advantage of and use those vacation days before the year is up. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be more likely to start the New Year off fresh and ready to tackle your goals.

3. Celebrating traditions

For many people, the holidays are a time to practice family or spiritual traditions. There are certainly times traditions need to be changed up, and it’s always a good time to start a new tradition, but many people find comfort in the practice of their time-honored traditions. Traditions reinforce the value of community, heritage, and memories. The  British Medical Journal published research that looked at brain scans and found that the brains of people who celebrate Christmas “light up” in the cerebral areas associated with spirituality, somatic senses, and facial emotion when viewing positive images associated with the holiday. In other words, your brain can actually reflect “Christmas spirit” if you celebrate the holiday.  You may choose to continue on with the practices of religious or spiritual traditions that you’ve grown up with, or you may decide to make your own new traditions. Either way, passing on traditions to the younger members of your family and celebrating together can be a valuable way to enhance family bonds.  All the while you are hopefully making great memories that will bring you joy and a shared sense of history as time goes on.

4. Seasonal giving and charity

The holidays are the time of year when many people make their annual donations to charity and practice a spirit of generosity by giving gifts to their loved ones, or volunteer for organizations that they care about. Some charities are only able to do the work that they do because of the influx of donations they get during the holiday season.  Recently, practices like Giving Tuesday have been developed to encourage people to think about supporting the non-profits that work for causes they care about.  Although charitable giving can be done year round (and I encourage you to support causes that you care about whenever you can and are able to afford it), holiday giving can make you feel good and generate some positive energy in your life.  Studies have shown that there are health benefits associated with charitable giving, including less depression, lower stress, and increased happiness. Volunteering has even been shown to increase longevity and results in older adults being less likely to die within the next 5 years when they volunteer. Charitable giving may even help you release more mood boosting brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, resulting in a “helper’s high”.  When you support programs that you care about, you will undoubtedly feel more gratitude for what you have and shift your focus onto what you are able to do for others.  This builds on your own strengths and fosters a sense of contentment and gratitude that is good for your mental health. By all means, give and volunteer for the good of the organizations and causes that you care about, but there’s nothing wrong with recognizing the benefits it brings to you too!

5. Reflection on achievements and goals

At the end of the year, you might find yourself reflecting on how the year went, whether you accomplished your goals, and what goals you have for the next year.  This is a great time to take stock of your achievements and give yourself some credit for all the work that you’ve done.  If you find yourself struggling to see your own accomplishments, you can still reframe any hardships that you’ve experienced and recognize the strength and resiliency that was required for you to overcome some of the obstacles you’ve faced.  Then, set new goals for yourself, and remember that starting over or continuing to work on something you haven’t achieved yet is fine too. Try not to get mired in what didn’t go your way this year, and instead focus on everything you’ve learned and what you’ve accomplished.

 

As you can see, there are many ways the holidays can be good for you, in spite of the stress that holidays can bring.  Sometimes it can be hard to deal with the overwhelming pressure to create a picture perfect holiday for yourself or your family, and even lead to feeling inadequate when you scan through your social media feeds.  However, you’ll have a better chance of getting through the holidays with a little more cheer and a little less stress if you focus on what is most important to you, and let go of the stuff that doesn’t serve you well this time of year.  That might mean focusing more on experiences with the people you love, and less on trying to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list.

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