It's not long now before we are in the thick of the December holidays. Whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa we are celebrating, we all bring to the holiday meal table our high expectations and, inevitably, our history of disappointments. In this period of pressured work and vacation schedules, hectic travel logistics, and economic and political stressors, we need to be especially vigilant about taking care of our own mental health -- not just for ourselves, but in order to be emotionally present for celebrations with friends and loved ones. We encourage our patients to keep themselves in mind during the winter holidays and to take special care of their minds, bodies and spirits.
1. Quiet time:
Social networking is the enemy of quiet time. Not only will Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr remind you of all of the good times your virtual friends are pretending to have, you'll also see carefully-selected photos designed to showcase the fun and exciting experiences that others are having without you. Try turning off the computer.
Go easy on the eggnog. Many parties can stack up close together in the coming days and weeks, with little time to recover from overdoing it and one or another soiree. Be sure to hydrate yourself -- try to drink a full glass of water for every alcoholic drink you consume. Remember, no matter how big the glass, one alcoholic drink is equivalent to 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, five ounces of wine, one 12-ounce beer, or eight ounces of eggnog. Take special care driving on the days and evening when drivers are most likely to have had a little too much to drink: Dec. 24 and 25, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
3. Family expectations:
If you are spending time with family this holiday season, it can be helpful to visualize or predict to yourself how things might go before you actually arrive at the gathering. Your fantasies of joyous reunions and resolution of past conflicts and differences need to be tempered with realistic expectations about the capacities and limitations of those to whom, for better or for worse, you happen to be related. If you you can't predict what might happen around the dinner table, think about the last time your family all got together, and figure that this year's festivities are likely to be about as enjoyable and as unpleasant as the last time.
4. Write it down:
Consider keeping a written record of your holiday adventures -- the highs, the lows, the reflux. Whatever you encounter, consider writing down your private thoughts and feelings -- maybe about wringing Aunt Edna's neck, or maybe about spending more time with Cousin Joe. Whatever the stressor, consider writing about it rather than yelling about it. Writing serves multiple overlapping and organizing functions. It allows you to re-formulate intense experiences in written form; it gives you a forum and an opportunity to express thoughts and feelings in an uncensored and non-destructive way; and it provides a written record of holiday experiences that will leave you better prepared for the slings and arrows of -- December 2012!
The benefits of regular or daily aerobic exercise on mood and stress management cannot be overstated. This is true at all levels of fitness; if one flight of stairs or once around the block is a workout for you, then start there and build up slowly. Every little bit counts. In northern climates, it may be particularly valuable to seek exercise in the morning sunlight, in order to promote wakefulness and ward off the depressive effects of the reduced light of the winter months. Inevitably, holiday commitments and celebrations will interfere with regular exercise routines, so be creative and fit in those fitness activities when and where you can. You can find many useful workout routines for even the most cramped and uncomfortable accommodations at the blog hotelroomworkout.com.
You've heard it before, but try to eat 5-6 small meals a day rather than one large meal in order to prevent overeating. Don't forget to add in those fruits and vegetables. From a psychological perspective, remember that cravings for emotional sustenance and connection can often masquerade as hunger pangs or cravings -- especially when we are spending time with our families of origin.
To avoid jet lag, shift your meal schedule to the time zone to which you will be traveling about 1-2 days before you depart. Napping on red-eye and other plane flights can also provide some defense against jet lag. Avoid afternoon naps as they can reduce the "sleep pressure" your body feels later that night and could predispose you to insomnia. If you find yourself awakening too early in the morning, this could be a sign of east-to-west jet lag; an after-effect of the effects of alcohol wearing off from the night before; or, most concerning, a developing clinical depression with hyper-secretion of the stress hormone cortisol by the hypothalamus. The holidays are a busy time for therapists, so don't be shy about calling for help even on the holidays themselves. A little professional support can go a long way to help people feel less overwhelmed during the holidays.
1. Faith in the Universe: Even as economic and political tensions rise, and families struggle to make ends meet during the holidays, ours is still a bountiful country in a big wide world in a wondrous universe. The starry nights of winter remind us of the vastness of existence and our good fortune to be alive as we attempt to move forward in life and toward achieving our goals.
2. The Passage of Time: Another year has come and gone. Maybe it's been a year in which you have grown... stretched yourself... tried new things. Or maybe it's been in a year in which you've had losses or reversals of fortune or setbacks in health. In the weeks before the end of the calendar year, it's a good time to try to take stock of what 2011 has brought and to wonder, either out loud or on paper, what 2012 has in store for you.
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