Maintaining Mental Health During the Holidays

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Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. is a licensed Psychologist in the state of Ohio (License #6083). She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from ...Read More

As the holiday season starts, many people start to feel stressed and overwhelmed. I thought I’d suggest a few tips for maintaining mental health in the weeks ahead.

Do something good for others


Being altruistic means helping others or doing good without focusing on recognition or reward for yourself. The holiday season presents many opportunities to be altruistic. Make a donation of money or time to your favorite charity, take a meal (or a gift card for a meal) to a family with a new baby or someone who is ill, extend the time on someone’s parking meter, etc. If you have children, modeling this type of behavior sends a powerful message that helping others is important.

Even though the point of altruistic behavior is focusing on others, research suggests that people who are more altruistic receive all sorts of physical and mental health benefits. Altruistic individuals have better life adjustment overall and tend to see life as more meaningful. In addition, altruism is associated with better marital relationships, a decreased sense of hopelessness and stress, less depression, increased physical health, and enhanced self-esteem.

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Do something good for yourself

Make certain that in the flurry of activity and commitments that usually accompany the holiday season, you don’t neglect yourself (see points below on laughing, eating, exercising and sleeping). I am not contradicting the above point and suggesting that you should become overly self-absorbed. However, if you don’t take care of yourself, you are likely to crash and burn.


Individuals with a greater sense of humor are more cheerful and have a higher self-esteem. They are also more likely to develop close, social relationships (these positive relationships can help us deal with stress). Humor can help to minimize the importance of stressful experiences (so you have 30 people coming for dinner and you burned the potatoes… In the big scheme of things, is it really the end of the world?). Finally, laughing can produce positive physiological (body) effects such as reducing muscle tension, increasing the flow of oxygen to the blood, exercising the heart, and producing endorphins (naturally produced body chemicals that decrease pain and increase a sense of well-being and euphoria).

Eat with moderation and don’t beat yourself up

Eating a hearty holiday meal of traditional dishes is something that many of us look forward to. Go ahead and enjoy yourself. However, don’t use the holidays as an excuse for weeks and weeks of overeating. Look at your eating over the course of the holiday period and try to balance the days so that the majority of time you are having sensible meals (for instance, if you attend a holiday party with rich food and drinks on Thursday, strive for two healthy days of eating on Friday and Saturday). Similarly, spending the whole time feeling guilty and bemoaning the number of calories you have consumed may trigger you to eat more (“I’ve already ruined my diet, so I’ll just go ahead and keep overeating”).


It’s tempting to skip that exercise class or 30 minute walk as you try to fit everything in during the holiday season. Try your best to treat exercise as an non-negotiable appointment (it often helps to schedule sessions in your calendar as meetings with yourself). Obviously, exercising is a great way to compensate for the extra calories that you have consumed. In addition, exercise is a great stress buster. If you simply cannot work in a block of exercise, .then try to sneak in exercise throughout your normal activities. Park as far away as possible from the store. Take a quick walk with your family before lapsing into the Turkey/Football Coma. Play some music and dance off a few extra calories as you are getting ready for guests.


It’s also tempting to cut back on sleep during the holidays. One of the fastest ways to run yourself into the ground is to decrease your sleep during the holidays. Sleep allows our bodies to repair and refresh, and prepare for the coming day. A lack of sleep can cause all sorts of problems such as increased susceptibility to illness, exacerbating stress, and increasing any sort of behavior/mood problems (e.g., depression) that you may already be dealing with. We can’t “bank sleep”, so napping for a few hours on the weekend will not make up for poor sleep during the rest of the week. Try, as much as possible, to maintain relatively consistent waking and “going to bed” times.

Pretend you are a kid again

Think back to your childhood. What activities kindled feelings of excitement and joy in the season? Decorate some cookies, grab a cup of hot chocolate, watch a favorite holiday movie, turn on some seasonal music, etc. Rituals are a way to connect with our past and to make us happy.

Say No

If you are overextended and run down, try to practice your assertiveness skills. It’s often hard to prioritize, but rather than trying to do it, all focus on the most important activities and tasks. It’s better to do a few things well rather than to do everything poorly. Similarly, it’s better to be “in the moment” and enjoy a few social functions rather than to simply go through the motions and show up to everything.

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