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Holiday obligations and mental health: putting your well-being first

When the holiday season starts looming on the horizon, it’s easy to get swept up in an endless stream of commitments and promises to friends, family, and loved ones. Sure, we enjoy the excitement and good cheer that falls each December (or from the moment you take down your Halloween decorations if you’re a full-on holiday fan), but the pressure can feel overwhelming at times.

How can we make time for everything? Can we really say yes to one set of friends, but not another? How can we take time out to visit grandparents, but not aunts and uncles? It’s easy to fall prey to the guilt of trying to fit in everything and everyone. Before we know it, we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, with a to-do list a mile long and half a dozen new yes’s signing us up for even more responsibilities we feel we can’t say no to.

But what about you? What about your well-being and happiness? Where does your enjoyment fall on your list of priorities? It’s easy to put ourselves at the bottom of our list when we’ve got a lot to do, but self-care and looking after ourselves shouldn’t become an after-thought – no matter what our holiday guilt may be telling us.

The festive period should be a time of joy. Spending time with loved ones, looking after ourselves, enjoying the year end together or reflecting on our own growth and development. We share seven small ways you can start taking back the holiday season and making yourself (and your well-being) your top priority.


7 ways to look after yourself this Christmas

Rediscover (and redefine) the true meaning of Christmas – what do the holidays actually mean to you? What is it you want to get out of your winter break? What really makes the holidays varies for each of us.

Do you want something more traditional – time spent with family, friends and loves ones, exchanging gifts and having a big meal; or something a bit different? Escaping for a spot of winter sun, volunteering over the festive period, perhaps having a staycation where you can shut yourself off from the outside world and create time for yourself.

If the idea of a typical holiday affair has you squirming in your seat, it could be time to make a change and try something new. Take a moment to jot down what you hope to achieve over the holidays. It doesn’t have to be set activities, it could be more vague feelings or emotions you want to focus on like togetherness or contentment. Maybe you want these holidays to be about calm over excitement, or the comfort of time with friends over family.

Once you know what you want the holidays to be about, you can start re-focusing your plans and energies around how you can work towards achieving this. You might not be able to get everything on your list, but if you can pick just a couple of key points and make these your focuses for the winter holidays, you can create a clearer starting point for a happier holiday with your wellbeing and desires at the centre of things.

A person walks through the snow shopping for giftsMinimise known stressors – if there are certain things you know you tend to find stressful in the lead-up to the holidays, acknowledge them ahead of time. This can help you to begin finding a way to deal with them, rather than letting the dread and worry build over days or weeks.

For example, if the thought of shopping for gifts has you breaking out in a cold sweat or delaying until the last possible moment, switching to online shopping cannot only relieve some of the pressure, but help you to take things at your own pace. Making gifts over buying them can add a personal touch, help reduce spending, and even be a fun way to spend time with loved ones having your own craftathon as you make gifts for other friends or family members.

If getting everything ready for a big family meal is what has you feeling anxious, try pre-ordering your food online for delivery to home or collection in-store to avoid the additional stress of finding (and inevitable forgetting) all the bits you need. If it’s the actual cooking that has you feeling nervous, try asking everyone to bring something along and having a Christmas potluck, or prepare things in advance where possible. It’s spending time together that counts, not getting every little detail perfect.

Once you know your main stressors, try finding a way you can get around them, or ask your family or friends if they can help. When something feels big or scary to us, it can be easy to forget that others may not know we are struggling with it and could do with some additional support.

Learn to say no – let’s face it; we’re a nation of ‘yes’ people. From a young age, we’re all steered firmly towards the path of saying ‘yes’. From it being rude to say no when family asks us to help out as kids, to the desire to fit in and make friends on the playground; from dreaded group projects (and shared grades) at college and university, to entering the workplace and wanting to seem like a team player; we’re all taught that saying yes is the best way to show a positive, can-do attitude, fit in, and become a part of the team.

According to Harvard behavioural scientist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton economist Eldar Shafir, the busier we get, the harder we find it to say ‘no’ when someone makes a request. This happens as the more stressed and tired we feel, the more likely we are to act out of habit.

The thing is – we can’t always say yes. We can’t always put what others want before what we need. It’s even easier to over-commit over the holidays than at other times of the year. Of course, we’d love to see everyone and do everything, but we have a finite amount of time and energy. The more we push ourselves to keep saying yes and to try and please everyone, the more quickly we can feel like everything is getting to be too much.

We need time to ourselves to relax, unwind, recover, and recharge. It may not feel easy, but practising saying no can save time and energy. There will still be time to see people in the New Year and beyond, plus you can always catch-up via messages or social media if you’re strapped for time.

If you’re struggling to say no, try not to delay giving your answer. Instead of saying you’ll think about it when asked or that you’ll get back to them, be up-front and honest. The more you put it off, the more guilty you may feel and the more hurt feelings it can cause. A short, sweet but firm answer with a simple reason why (be that time, stress levels, or other commitments) should be enough.

Let go of perfection – many feel the pressure for everything to be just right. The right gifts, right food, right decorations, right people. The thing is – there’s no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays. What’s perfect for one person isn’t for another. As an adult? We get to make up the rules of what ‘just right’ is for us. Once you let go of your own expectations of what needs to be done, what has to be perfect, and what will just make the holiday, it can feel like a big pressure has been released.

While it’s important to figure out what matters to you over the holidays, it’s just as important to be kind and gentle with yourself; it’s good to have plans, but it’s even better to be understanding if they go awry or need to change. You can’t plan for every eventuality; you can’t control every detail. If you can make peace with that, you can start to enjoy the festive season a little more, and get back to spending time with the ones you love.

Enjoy the moment – take time to have mindful moments of reflection where you can. Try to remember, not every minute needs to be filled with plans, activities, and holiday cheer. Take time to reflect on what you are experiencing in that moment – not what you’ve got to get done before family arrives for a cuppa and a mince pie, or that wrapping you meant to get done yesterday but you were just too tired to get started let alone finish.

Take a moment to just be; to centre yourself and feel more grounded. Focus on what’s around you in the moment – the sights, smells, feel, sound, taste – and just let yourself experience the moment.

Going at things full-tilt during every day off you have in the lead up to the holiday may leave you feeling overwhelmed by stress, and underwhelmed by your own sense of holiday cheer and satisfaction. Practising a little mindfulness can help bring small moments of calm and focus to our daily lives, helping feel more present and connected within ourselves and the world around us.

Keep things simple – do you need to make multiple family visits in one day? Does Christmas day have to involve travelling between family and friends, or can you take different days to spend time with different people?

Things can be trickier if you have limited time off over the holidays, but consider what areas you can simplify. Some traditions are wonderful to keep up, but if they are causing more stress or anxiety than warm fuzzy feelings, it could be an indicator that it’s time to reassess which traditions should be here to stay and which it may be time to retire.

Limiting your commitments isn’t admitting failure or diluting your holiday cheer; it’s recognising that you need the time to appreciate and enjoy each tradition and moment that you do keep. It’s making the most of the ways you do celebrate, rather than trying to fill every possible second.

If you’re feeling a lot of pressure from different sides of the family in a partnership, it could be time to start your own traditions and reassess which parts of old traditions are truly important and which are more obligations that enjoyable.

Traditions don’t need to be big, expensive or elaborate; we’ve adopted the ‘try it on’ song from my partner’s childhood Christmases along with staying in pj’s all day, mixed with early lunch/dinner from my family Christmases, and our very own new years tradition of gaming marathons and party food; there are no right or wrong ways to do it.

Know when to put down (and embrace) technology – the FOMO (fear of missing out) is real – don’t let it rule your holidays. It can feel like everyone is having a perfect celebration but trust us, behind the perfectly staged Instagram photo, half a dozen things may have gone wrong, and they are feeling just as stressed as the rest of us.

While it’s good not to get stuck in the comparison trap with friends and family, and some times are great to go tech-free (we’re looking at you, Christmas dinner; who really needs their phone over lunch or any other shared meal?), it’s also worth considering the ways tech can help bring you together over the holidays.

Skyping or Facetiming with family who can’t make it to your celebration, catch up with friends via chat or messenger, even recording short clips of the kids opening gifts from those who can’t make it to your main celebration – you shouldn’t feel obligated, but if tech can help you feel just a little more connected, it’s also worth not shunning it just because you feel like it’s what you should do.

We may each spend an average of 24 hours on our phones every week, but not all of that time is spent scrolling through social media or trying to beat the latest level of candy crush. Don’t dismiss how helpful tech can be when it comes to keeping up with loved ones; if a call feels like too much or trying to squeeze in a time that works for you both is starting to cause stress, don’t be afraid to switch to apps or messaging to keep in touch.

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Bonnie Evie Gifford

Written by Bonnie Evie Gifford

Bonnie Evie Gifford is a Senior Writer at Happiful.

Written by Bonnie Evie Gifford

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