Tips for staying mentally healthy over the holidays

Thoughtfully approaching this season of excess can make self-care easier

The stresses and temptations that come with the holidays can take a toll on our physical and mental health.

This festive season brings endless opportunities to overeat, overdrink and overextend ourselves socially and financially. There are inherent stresses around trying to get just the right gift and host just the right gathering. And the holidays can be emotionally trying, whether we’re reckoning with difficult relationships, the loss of loved ones or feeling lonely.

And then there are the unique challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, including worries about the new omicron variant.

All of these seasonal issues make conscious self-care even more important, particularly for people dealing with chronic health conditions such as kidney disease or high blood pressure.

“It’s always at the end of the holiday season, in January, we try to go back and hit the gym and change our diet and see how we can improve on what we’d done,” says UCLA Health nephrologist Anjay Rastogi, MD, PhD. “But what if we start early on and try to put checks and balances so we don’t fall too far behind in our health care?”

To that end, Dr. Rastogi has launched a series of online chats - focusing on physical health, mental health and diet and nutrition - that will offer perspectives from an array of physicians and specialists, including dietitians and behavioral health experts.

Dr. Anjay Rastogi

The first presentation, on Dec. 1 called “Staying Healthy During the Holiday Season,” featured therapist Jim Cunningham, who discussed strategies for maintaining mental and emotional health over the holidays.

For most people, the pandemic has altered routines and disrupted healthy habits, he said, and the holiday season’s demands and delicious foods can make things even more challenging.

To stay mentally and emotionally balanced, he recommends:

  • Ditch dichotomous thinking: “People get halfway through the holidays and they’re like, ‘Oh, I blew it,” and they just keep going with that and going down the rabbit hole,” he said. “And it doesn’t have to be that way.” Look at an overindulgence at the dessert table or the bar for what it is: a single event, not a declaration for the future. Even a week of overeating isn’t a sentence for the rest of the season. You can make healthier choices at your very next meal and get back on track. Same goes for exercise. If a busy holiday schedule has you off your workout game, shift the paradigm by fitting in movement where you can. A short walk can be the first step toward rebooting your regimen.
  • Visualize success and healthy boundaries: “Sit down and write out how you would like to see the next month play out,” Cunningham said. “What are your wildest dreams? What made you succeed in the past? How are you taking care of yourself?” Approaching the holiday season with awareness of your hopes for the season and reflecting on the behaviors that make you feel best can make it easier to make thoughtful, self-supportive decisions.
  • Encourage yourself: Thoughts trigger feelings that lead to actions, Cunningham said, so intentionally guiding yourself toward positive thoughts makes positive feelings and actions more likely. “Even if you don’t believe it when you first open your eyes, just tell yourself — repeat it three times, repeat it 10 times — ‘This is going to be a productive day,’” he said. “And if you start going in that direction, you’d be surprised, eventually you’re going to catch fire. It’s positive reinforcement. Emotions and feelings trigger actions, and that’s how I think, fundamentally, you can start the clock.”

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