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.
- 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.
Many people are familiar with the practice of pet therapy, as well as service animals, but I’ve noticed a rise in both the benefits and recognition of a newer category of animals known as emotional support animals (ESA). Emotional support animals are not trained to perform specific tasks for their owners in the same way that service animals are. Service animals may be trained to do things that help people with mobility and sensory conditions or other disabilities, and they are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which means that they legally are allowed at any public place that their owner goes and receive protections from housing discrimination, among other legal protections. They specifically do things that the individual cannot do for themselves, such as guiding or alerting people, picking up objects, responding to PTSD symptoms under duress, or assisting with other tasks. Emotional Support Animals are not specifically trained to do these things, but may otherwise provide comfort and reduce distress in conditions such as anxiety and depression. ESAs are not service animals and are not covered under the ADA. Nevertheless, emotional support animals can be an important and legitimate tool for people who experience relief from distress when spending time with and receiving affection from their animals.
The benefits of service animals are considered a necessary aid to people with special needs. We have long been accepting of service animals in public places (I once saw a woman with a service pony in a Target), and more recently have increased the training and accessibility of service animals for veterans through different programs specifically targeted for veterans with physical or mental health injuries. However, despite these socially acceptable and recognized benefits, people with less severe conditions are sometimes mocked or dismissed when claiming the need for an emotional support animal. It’s true that with any specially recognized category there is potential for abuse by people without true needs who want to claim benefits. Yet just because someone’s condition doesn’t necessarily disable them, this doesn’t mean that their ESA isn’t providing a true benefit to them.
Many people who are high functioning have learned to cover their conditions well, and continue to work and engage in other areas of their lives while still suffering from depression or anxiety in private. When an ESA can provide some relief from these symptoms and comfort to those who are suffering, I can find little reason to deny people the right to maintain access to their animals. Mostly, people with ESAs simply want access to housing that they may otherwise be denied if they want to bring their animal with them. Apartment complexes with no pet policies will usually allow ESA animals with documentation from a medical or mental health provider certifying the need for an ESA, whereas they would be legally required to do so under the ADA with a certified service animal.
An emotional support animal is more than a pet. While from the outside it may look as though someone is functioning just fine, you don’t know what symptoms a person may be experiencing privately. Anyone who has loved an animal can attest to the very real comfort and companionship they provide. An ESA can be an invaluable tool for people with anxiety, depression, or other related conditions that helps them improve their quality of life and cope with their symptoms. With proper training and care, there is little downside to accepting ESAs more openly in our society and reducing the stigma towards people who use them responsibly. Even if you do not need an ESA or suffer from a mental health condition, your relationship with your pet is meaningful and can improve your quality of life. Bonding with an animal helps you focus on the needs of another being, and they can reward you with affection and unconditional love. If you want to learn more about ESAs, visit therapypet.org.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the first annual Women at Werk Empowerment Conference. This was an event that combined presentations from successful working professionals with vendors, information booths, and give-aways by women-owned and operated businesses. “Werk” is intentionally spelled with an E for Empowerment. The goal of the conference for attendees was knowledge, networking, and inspiration from fellow females at many different stages of career development. I can truly say that this event met and exceeded my expectations in terms of what I was hoping to get out of it. The speakers were inspirational, the vendors were diverse and creative in their scope of services and products, and the energy of the women who attended and participated in the conference was inspirational. I wanted to share some of the things that I personally took away from my experience at Women at Werk (in addition to some free bling by Kendra Scott Jewelry!).
“Success is not measured by money, it is measured by Joy” –Dr. Asha Brewer
This statement by one of the morning speakers really resonated with me. Money may be the tangible goal that many of us are working towards as we seek career success. However, for many people, when you really examine what it is that we want, it’s not the actual money. I know there are many people out there who truly just want lots and lots of money. However, I think for more of us, what money represents is freedom, and it is that freedom that allows us to pursue our Joy. Joy, of course, can be attained through many things: time with our families, new and interesting experiences, fulfilling our hobbies, goals, and dreams, and giving back in meaningful ways to causes and communities we care about. When we are able to use our work to fulfill our potential and achieve our goals, the joy will come. When we choose to focus on achieving joy, then success becomes much more tangible. If you find yourself reaching more and more career success as measured by income, but have no joy, then what is the point? I know for me, there is no specific amount of money that would mean “success” to me. For me, success is more about achieving what I need to accomplish in order for me to experience the joy that comes from freedom, and be able to transfer that joy to others whenever and however I can.
#MeToo – Brenda Bellard
A women’s empowerment conference could hardly have avoided the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace in light of the Me Too movement of 2017. While Ms. Bellard came to talk about financial literacy and the importance of understanding banking and finance for female entrepreneurs, it was her personal story of resilience and success in the corporate banking culture that really inspired me with gratitude for the women of the older generations who have carved out the paths for women and racial minorities today. As an African American woman who started in banking as a teller and achieved Vice President status at Sun Trust Bank, she’s seen and experienced it all. As a woman in a male dominated field, she described the harassment she faced, including a man who would throw paper balls down the front of her blouse for his own amusement while at work. With no allies around her, and the corporate culture of the time unlikely to support her, she had to deal with the man herself, which she did, after hours, in a break room, by herself. When I try to imagine the courage it took for Ms. Bellard to confront this harasser on her own, risking her career and possibly even her safety, I’m in awe. It is because of women like her that we are where we are today. We have still further to go in order to make workplaces safe and fair for all women, but I feel more empowered knowing that women have been at this fight for a long time, and we’re not giving up, we’re getting louder.
“Your vagina has power…SQUEEZE” -Dr. Ieshai Bailey
Hats off to the lady who got an entire room of well over 100 attendees doing kegels together! As a licensed sex therapist, amongst other notable accomplishments, Dr. Bailey epitomized the embrace of positive sexuality. Many may have been blushing, but she did manage to get our fists in the air to embrace the SQUEEZE! Her message of rejecting the language of sexual shame and embracing sexual power and JOY, was uplifting and a great reminder that our bodies are ours to enjoy. I loved her mixture of frank talk and disarming humor. Her message was a great addition to this conference, as she reminded us to embrace every part of our femininity, and to caste off the shame that our culture has tried to tie up female sexuality with.
There is so much more that I could share and talk about with this conference, and I I’m sure I’ll be called back to remind myself of the energy and inspiration this event triggered for me as I continue to work on my own goals. I want to give a Big Shout Out to the organizer of the event, Stephanie A. Jones, who is herself an inspiring and empowered woman who is always seeking to lift up those around her who want to come along for the ride. I can’t wait to network with this group of ambitious and creative women. I also managed to snag some swag from a few vendors as well, including beauty products from Apple Rose Beauty that do double duty by supporting the fight to end human trafficking, and some self-care items from Unapologetically Single, which supports my own need to Zen-out as often as realistically possible. In short, don’t miss this event next time around if you want to network with other ambitious and creative women, support local and female owned business, and get those ideas flowing for your own projects. I will definitely be there (did I mention I got free jewelry?!?).