• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

Got the Holiday Season Blues? These Winter Self-Care Tips Can Help

Updated: Dec 3, 2019

As we enter the winter months, we enjoy fewer hours of sunlight each day, which can cause a chemical imbalance in the brain, such as the underproduction of serotonin -- the feel good neurotransmitter. In addition to the expectations and stress of holiday planning, travel, and celebrations, the winter months can be accompanied by a case of the blues, increased anxiety, or relational stress. It's important to take care of yourself through this season and the tips below will help you to do so!

1. Set a routine and establish a regular sleep-wake cycle. Our brain really likes patterns, so living life according to a routine helps the brain to thrive. However, this can be a challenge during the holiday season when we have fewer daylight hours and often find ourselves pulled in several different directions between managing day-to-day life, traveling to visit family, and attending holiday events. Many people report feeling tired or overwhelmed during the holidays, and this is often the result of an unpredictable or chaotic schedule. Before the stress of the holiday season kicks in, set a regular schedule that includes time for sleep, exercise, and self-care. Keeping a regular sleep-wake cycle will help regulate your neurotransmitters and establish and effective sleep pattern to keep you at optimal alertness throughout the day; and setting a routine will minimize stress by creating predictability. 

2.Communicate and enforce your boundaries. Before responding to invitations and showing up at holiday gatherings, get really clear about what your boundaries are. Think through boundaries with respect to space, time, topics, and consumption. In setting and upholding your boundaries, be specific about how much time you are willing to spend on a particular activity so that you don't overcommit yourself. Look at that routine you set in step one and ask yourself whether or not the task or event in question disrupts that schedule. If you cannot attend something you are invited to, you might say something like, "Thank you for thinking of me but unfortunately there is no room in my schedule." As with time, you also need to decide what your boundary is about space. Maybe having people in your home is too much for you. Or going away on a trip where you'll have limited space to be alone and take a break feels overwhelming. If you need more space, you might say something like, "I would love to do a Thanksgiving dinner with you guys this year, but right now I don't have the capacity to host it at my house. Can you help me think of an alternative venue?" Also be clear about what topics are off limits and communicate your boundaries in this area ahead of time. The holidays can often be triggering because nosey family members and friends want intimate life updates on what you've been doing since they have seen you last. However, this often leads to inappropriate and invasive questions about romantic partners, children, jobs, homes, and other major life decisions. If there are topics you are not ready to discuss with particular family members, it is more than ok to set a boundary there. You might say something like, "I enjoy spending time with you and the rest of the family at events like this, but right now my decision to not have kids is not up for discussion" or "Mike and I are no longer together, but I'd prefer not to discuss that now." Nobody is entitled to intimate information about your life and you are in charge of how much you are willing to disclose. Finally, set boundaries around consumptions. This includes food, alcohol, gifts, and any other tangible item a person may give to you or request from you. Know what you are willing to consume and set boundaries around the things you are not willing to take in. You might say something like, "We'd love to join you but I want to let you know that we have made the decision not to do gifts this year" or, "I'm excited to be there, but just wanted to let you know I'm not drinking right now." Setting boundaries gives you a way to talk with others about where you are and helps others create an environment that is less triggering for you and gives you.

3.Stay hydrated and eat a balanced diet low in carbs and sugar and high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Your brain’s neurons are made mostly of water, so being dehydrated can impact your mood and mental functioning. How much water is needed a day? You should drink half your weight in ounces of water per day.  For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, you should be drinking at least 80 ounces of water a day. In addition to hydration, diet can also impact your cognitive and emotional well-being and combat the stress of the holiday season. Start by increasing antioxidants, which protect the brain’s neurons from stress-related damage. Antioxidants are found in colorful fruits and vegetables, spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, basil, pepper, and oregano , and chocolate! Eat omega-3 fatty acids, which make up the neurons of the brain. Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to more efficient brain functioning and reduced levels of depression and anxiety.  Consuming 3 servings of fish a week is the simplest way to get enough Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, but if you don’t eat fish, you can also take fish oil supplements (500-1,000mg of DHA and EPA daily).

4.If at all possible, get dressed and leave the house. Our inner world often reflects our external experience, so if you mope around the house in your pajamas all day, you'll likely feel drearier than if you were to engage in some basic hygiene (i.e., shower, shave, style hair, wear make up) and leave the house for some stimulation and human interaction.

5.Purchase a natural sunlight lamp. The reason many people feel so down in the winter months is because there is less sunlight, which means a reduction in Vitamin D, which is crucial for mental health. Vitamin D is the only vitamin that the body synthesizes into a hormone. In its hormone form, Vitamin D regulates neurotransmitter production, particularly serotonin, which is responsible for mood stability. Getting a natural sunlight lamp and taking Vitamin D supplements can help supplement the limited Vitamin D you get from the sun during darker months of the year. 

6.Get some exercise. Even if it’s too cold or dark to go outside, try doing some stretching, yoga, or weight-lifting at home. Luckily there are youtube channels and instagram accounts full of workouts you can do from the comfort of your own home. Regular exercise promotes the health of the prefrontal cortex in the brain, reduces tension, and improves sleep - all of which support a balanced mood. If you do not currently exercise at all, start with moderate exercise and gradually increase your movement. Find a way to move your body that feels more like fun and less like punishment. 

7. Stay connected with a therapist. Seeing your therapist regularly is an important part of your self-care routine and maintaining a regular schedule through the winter season. If the weather, traveling, or the busyness of the holiday season prevent you from making it into your therapist's office, request an online video session. Many therapists offer virtual telehealth sessions, which can be helpful for remaining connected during the winter months.


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