The holidays are meant to be a festive and happy time. As I enter into the first holiday season I’ll have without my father, I’ve been thinking about how hard this time of year can be for so many people. It’s important to recognize that if you, or someone you know, experience stress, sadness, or a range of negative emotions during the holidays, it’s not uncommon. 

The reasons for these feelings may include:

* Financial Pressures: the cost of gift-giving, socializing, food, decorations, and travel can cause huge stress.

* Family Dynamics: family conflicts can make spending time together with the pressure of ‘celebration’ stressful.

* Loneliness: being alone during a time when so many people are coming together, can cause sadness and feelings of intense loneliness. 

* Expectations vs. Reality: unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment and stress when reality doesn’t match those expectations. If you’re a parent who has felt disappointment from a child after not getting the ask-for gift, you’ll know this well. 

* Grief and Loss: for those of us who have experienced the loss of a loved one, or significant relationship, the holidays can be a challenging time to navigate grief.

Below are some tips to help manage stress, show yourself some self-care love, and combat those feelings of stress, loneliness and/or disappointment. 

Tips for Holiday Stress & Anxiety Support

When you’re feeling stressed and anxious about the holidays, try practicing these habits:

1. Move

When you wake, don’t hit the snooze button, get out of bed, put your exercise clothes on (that you laid out the night before) and move.

It doesn’t need to be a full workout if you don’t have the time, even 15 minutes of any activity will do: a brisk walk, do a stretch and core session, yoga, dance….just move and get your blood pumping. Do this in the morning even if you’re doing a workout later in the day.

2. Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve

Your vagus nerve, which runs from your brain all the way to your large intestine, carries signals to your brain, heart, lungs and digestive system.

It plays a part in controlling involuntary sensory and motor functions (eg. heart rate, speech, mood and urine output) and helps your body switch back and forth between your flight-or-fight response and more relaxed parasympathetic mode.

Stimulating the vagus nerve helps your body manage stress and anxiety. 

Ways to boost yours in the morning:

* Cold Water Face Immersion: immerse your forehead, eyes and at least 2/3 of both cheeks into cold ice water. Do three rounds of 10 to 20 seconds.

* Cold Showers: for the last 60 seconds of your shower, turn the dial to cold and stand under with your face (including forehead) under cold water, then move to the top of your head, then lower back (20 seconds each). It’s easier to do than it sounds, and you’ll feel the energy (physical & mental) boost immediately. Increase to two-minutes as able. 

* Exercise: interval training, brisk walks (particularly in chilly weather) and yoga all help stimulate the vagus nerve and lowers your sympathetic nervous activity. 

* Practice Deep Breathing: deep belly breathing can have an immediate impact on your nervous system, stimulating the vagus nerve and therefore the parasympathetic response. Try three cycles of: breathe in through your nose for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts, breathe out your nose for 5 counts, then plug your nose for 5 counts. 

3. Nourish with Foods that have a Complex of Protein, Healthy Fats & Nature’s (high fibre) Carbs: 

Healthy Fats: including them can help keep you satiated and provide mood-boosting support. Two ideas: 

Seeds (hemp, chia, flax) – rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which aid in brain health and mood regulation. They’re also a good source of magnesium (low levels of magnesium are linked to depression and anxiety). 

Avocados – contain high levels of folate (a deficiency in folate has been linked to depression) and antioxidants, which help keep inflammation down that can result in poor gut health and brain fog.   

Nature’s Carbs (for energy): by this we mean fruits, veggies, seeds and grains like slow-cooked oats (high fibre foods*). Skip processed carbs (eg. commercial breads, pastries, and cereals), that have additives, sugar, and are generally low in nutrition value. 

* Fibre helps you avoid unstable blood sugar (sharp spikes and drops) that have been linked to negative moods and irritability. 

Protein: like healthy fats and fibre, protein will help keep your blood sugar levels stable. Protein also contains amino acids that your brain needs to produce neurotransmitters, which help regulate thoughts and feelings and can positively impact your mood. For morning protein, we love adding sprouted protein to smoothies and oatmeal, tofu & black beans to scrambles, and making chia pudding or parfaits.   

Get Into Adaptogens: these are immune system soldiers and provide your body support with stress impact and management. Rotate foods and boosters like turmeric, ginger, functional mushrooms (lions mane, cordyceps, chaga, reishi), maca and ginseng into your diet. 

4. Break up with alcohol 

No alcohol this holiday

Can drinking alcohol give you feelings of anxiety and depression? It sure can. It’s called HANGXIETY. Here’s what’s going on:

Why Drinking Gives You Hangxiety: alcohol influences brain chemistry – it can induce panic because of its effects on GABA, a chemical in the brain that normally has a relaxing effect. Small amounts of alcohol can stimulate GABA and cause feelings of relaxation, but heavy drinking can deplete GABA, causing increased tension and feelings of panic.

Why You Don’t Sleep Well: alcohol disrupts what’s known as your sleep architecture, the normal phases of deeper and lighter sleep we go through every night. A night of drinking can “fragment,” or interrupt, these patterns, experts say, and you may wake up several times as you ricochet through the usual stages of sleep.

Cutting alcohol out, or sticking to one or two drinks max, during festive evenings is going to have a hugely positive impact on your mental and physical health. 

5. Budget

Financial stress can cause anxiety, sleeplessness, depression and feelings of hopelessness and shame. If the holidays are causing you financial worries, you’re not alone.

According to the GOC, almost half of us are seriously stressed about money and 44% are living paycheck to paycheck, which makes the financial strain of the holidays even more overwhelming. 

It’s hard to ‘say no’ to gift wishlists, dinners out and expensive celebrations, but in the long run sticking to your budget, and being ok with saying no to the things that push you outside of it, is a lot better for your health and happiness. 

6. Volunteer (or get into other acts of kindness)

The holidays can be a difficult time for many people. Read on for coping tips to get through and thrive this holiday season.

According to Forbes, there is a terrific antidote to stress and loneliness: kindness. Doing acts of kindness can reduce depression and positively contributes to all kinds of wellbeing. 

Kindness works because it helps us feel more connected with others, and it distracts us from our own problems. Happiness is significantly correlated with belonging and community—so it makes sense that kindness would be a source of joy.

Volunteering to serve food for people via the Union Gospel Mission and organizing/preparing meals for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver are two of the best community experiences I’ve had during past holiday seasons. 

If you are experiencing prolonged sadness, depression, anxiety and/or need support, please talk to a loved one or health care professional. Check out our comprehensive guide to mental health support available in Canada.

Take care of your mental and physical health this season, and look out for those around you.

You May Also Like
Older adult feeling anxiety
Read More

Getting Help For Anxiety in Older Adults

18 per cent of Canadians 65+ experience anxiety or depression. The medical community has developed guidelines to help. Learn more about identifying anxiety and getting diagnosis and treatment.