I know the title “Self-Care to Survive the Holidays” may seem a tad dramatic… But our nervous systems can get hijacked into fight or flight this time of year quicker than you can say “Jack Frost”. When that happens, our bodies truly go into survival mode, no matter how illogical our brains might reason it to be.
While everything about this season can be overwhelming – from party planning to gift buying to cookie baking – I find the biggest stressor this time of year to be family dynamics. I have three older siblings, we’re all married, and they all have kids. Add them on top of our parents, and there are usually 14+ people sharing a medium sized house with only two bathrooms, and it can get pretty chaotic pretty fast!
It doesn’t matter how old you are – when you walk through that front door into your family home, you experience an egoic regression. Suddenly you’re seven years old again. Every time your sibling opens their mouth, old wounds can be reopened and deep triggers set off. The rivalries and competitions pop right back up, no matter how irrational you know it is. Have you ever experienced this? It can be completely unnerving. You love these people more than anyone in the world – which makes being misunderstood by them and wasting precious time together in conflict all the more painful.
Last time I was home, I jotted down a list of things to do when I go home in the future. I give you my 10 Self-Care Strategies to Survive the Holidays!
1. Eat Clean(ish)
What we put in our bodies affects our emotions. When I go home I’m often met with vegetarian options consisting of cheese on cheese on cheese. When I became a vegetarian, my grandmother nodded and asked, “But you still eat bacon, right?”
Needless to say, going home to Kentucky can be less than healthy, especially around the holidays. Because being surrounded by family can already be so emotionally charged and draining, it is especially important to eat clean. If at all possible, stop by a grocery store on your way in and purchase clean food for yourself. Just say no to anything that’s going to mess with your system. I know it can feel rude to show up with your own food at the holidays, but remember – this is your body, so it’s your choice what you feed it. If you think it will help, contact your host in the days leading up to the gathering and let them know what you will be bringing and why. If it’s a potluck, make plenty for everyone and spread the healthy feel-good vibes!
Food is emotional. Holiday food is nostalgic and comforting. Remember, you don’t have to completely cut it out. One of the beautiful things about the holidays is treating yourself and indulging a bit. Make embodied decisions about what you want and need. Balance, balance, balance – there should be fresh veggies at most gatherings, so be sure to load up on plenty of those. Visualize yourself making healthy decisions now, and share what your goals are. This will increase your likelihood of success!
If all else fails, remember to limit your intake of these three things: alcohol, caffeine and sugar. These triggers deeply affect our sleep and emotional vulnerability. And carbs are included, as they get converted into sugar. Count your alcoholic and caffeinated beverages and stick to your limits. For example, I strive to have just one cup of coffee a day, no more than seven alcoholic drinks per week, and never more than three on one day. Do I fail at these limits? Of course. But mostly I am successful because tracking them holds me accountable. When you’re on the go, you can pull up a simple note-taking app and keep a running tally like this:
Booze (out of 7 this week): XXXXXXX
Caffeine (out of 2 today): XX
Desserts (out of 1 today): X
2. Set a Schedule
Getting out of my routine messes with my head and heart in profound ways. Sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse. When I go back to my childhood home, it can be overwhelming to try and spend quality time with family, fit in seeing old friends, and still find time for self-care. It’s simply impossible without a schedule. If you fail to plan it, you’re planning to fail at it.
The first thing to prioritize is sleep. If you’re staying in a house with millions of small children who go to bed and wake up at hours much earlier than your norm, plan for it. Think about going to bed when they do, so when you’re inevitably awakened by the pitter patter of little feet, you’re not so grinchy about it.
Next is exercise. Working out can seem impossible around the holidays, but with holiday eating and Seasonal Affective Disorder more likely, it’s most important this time of year! Jot down when you plan to do it and how. Writing it down cements it into your mind. I will go for a walk with my family after lunch on Sunday. I will attend a yoga class at my old studio on Wednesday at 10am. Plan it with friends or family to maximize your quality time and be a positive influence. Even if it means rising earlier to fit it in, your emotions will thank you!
Next, try to eat at the same time every day. Even if it means stashing raw nuts in your pockets. Eating at irregular times can wreak havoc on your body, spiking your blood sugar and cholesterol now, leading to a crash later.
Finally, start thinking about scheduling in time with loved ones as far in advance as possible. It’s nothing to stress about, but I find knowing I have coffee with my two high school best friends on Sunday morning helps me relax while at home. Blocking out the night of my best friend’s birthday party and New Year’s Eve parties every year helps me plan my other days with family. Knowing everyone’s covered and already taken care of helps me be fully present with the people I’m with. I used to go home and just text everyone, “I’m here!”, then work like mad the whole time trying to organize logistics with friends from different chapters of life. It was a nightmare! Planning time to see the people I care about in advance really reduces the stress and drama.
3. Exit the Drama Stage Left
There may be times at home when family altercations break out, and you literally need to leave the room. Even if only verbal assaults, altered tones of voice, or passive aggressive door slams – your being only knows two states: safe and unsafe. This includes when arguments aren’t even directed towards you – their energy still affects yours. Now, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever be willing to get uncomfortable in relationships. Real community often requires us to push our boundaries into realms of deeper intimacy. But when your intuition is telling you that you need your space – even just a few moments of alone time – listen. Head to your bedroom, go for a walk around the block, do whatever you need to do. Simply say, “I’m really sorry, but I need to take a few minutes to be by myself.”
Set your intentions for how you hope to react in certain situations. Perhaps its striving to be the first to apologize and make peace, even when you feel you’ve been wronged or misunderstood. Maybe it’s a script you come up with for when you need to end a conversation that’s encroaching on dangerous territory (politics, religion, your personal beliefs). You can say, “I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that point. But I respect your opinion, and hope we can talk about something else?” Prepare to be met with defensiveness. If someone clearly is disrespectful of your right to an opinion, or will not leave you alone, remove yourself from the room. Come up with a list of potential scenarios and then brainstorm the reactions that would feel most like self-care to you. Remember – you can only control yourself. Let this be your mantra!
If you anticipate any of these scenarios happening, send an email to the folks you’ll be staying around in advance. You can say, “Group gatherings can be unexpectedly overwhelming for me sometimes. I hope you’ll understand when I need to get some air or alone time.” Discussing how you will care for yourself in advance, while everyone is in an agreeable mood, can help empower you to do what you need to later. And it can help hold you accountable to your own intentions, especially if you ask someone you trust to remind you of them when needed.
4. Ask for Quality Time… & Adjust Expectations
Start brainstorming the people in your family you would like to spend quality time with in advance. I always get the best conversations with my dad when he’s driving me to and from the airport. I know my mom will be running around constantly, so asking her to pause with me is really important. It can be incredibly vulnerable to ask a family member for twenty minutes to go for a walk and chat – do it anyway. Reread ritual #7 in my 7 Rituals for a Mindful Holiday Season.
Prepare yourself that, when you ask for quality time, the response might be, “No.” Other people’s emotional courage and mental wellness is far from your control. You never know what seeds you might be planning for future encounters. Wish them well and be on your merry way.
Sometimes in big families, getting together is more about organized chaos. If you’re childless like me, it can feel odd to sit around watching children play and adults work, desiring to connect in meaningful conversation but feeling at a loss. Ask for that 1-on-1 time, but if it doesn’t happen with everyone, try to be present in the chaotic moment anyway. Make it a meditation – can you emanate peace and tranquility even in the face of – how did the grinch put it? All the noise, noise, noise, NOISE!
5. Make Yoga, Meditation, & Self-Care a Priority
When life gets busy or overwhelming, often the first thing to get cut from my day is my self-care routine. And I’m a self-care coach! Meditation is the most important thing that we don’t make time for. If I’m traveling or visiting family, it’s not just hard to find the time, it’s hard to find the SPACE. Start thinking ahead of time where and when you will meditate. If your usual practice is five minutes sitting in stillness, perhaps bundle up and sit under a tree while everyone else is inside. If you like walking meditations, pop your earbuds in for a walk around the neighborhood – there are tons of great guided ones on the Insight Timer app. And if sleep is especially difficult for you in a crowded house with lots of energy and emotions, switch on a Yoga Nidra practice. Prioritize meditation first thing in the morning, perhaps before you even leave the bedroom so no one knows you’re awake yet.
If you have space in your luggage, pack your yoga mat or block. To make do, use a towel or rug under your hands and feet while you practice. Blankets and pillows can double as bolsters. Aim for at least half the time of your usual practice, and bundle it with your meditation time to make sure your body is in an optimal state when you are met with the day’s new experiences.
Even if you don’t usually perform other self-care activities, like self-massage or using essential oils, consider getting into them now. Having a new practice to look forward to during stressful times can expand your resiliency and improve your attitude during the holidays. And invite friends and family to join you. You never know – I was surprised the first time my Mom allowed me to lead her in a guided meditation, and every time my niece spontaneously joins me on the yoga mat! Everyone craves these practices, some people just need to see it modeled in order to be invited into them. You have an opportunity here to be a self-care role model. You never know what ripple effects you are creating just by allowing your practice to be witnessed, and answering any questions that come up.
6. Pack Your Self-Care Essentials
Remember my self-care toolkit? I never travel without items 2, 3, 4, 5 and 9! I love having herbal tea on hand as an alternative to caffeine or alcohol – and it’s so cozy to drink hot tea rather than cold water in the winter. Include some healthy snacks, like nuts or fruit, for the plane and between meals.
Be sure to pack your favorite essential oils – I love lavender for relaxation and anti-inflammatory peppermint to fight headaches and muscle pain. Spread the aromatherapy love and whip ’em out in group settings!
I notoriously pack 3 or 4 books for a single trip – I never know what mood I’m going to be in. I like to sit in the common area and read a book (rather than watch TV) – I find it invites people in and is a great conversation starter. It’s also a nice way to have some solo time without feeling isolated.
The 2 most important self-care items I always pack are my sleep mask and headphones. I cannot sleep without my light-blocking eye mask – it has helped me conquer plane sleep which evaded me for so long. And the headphones are for white noise (I have this app on my phone). In particularly noisy households, I need the white noise fed directly into my ears through earbuds. These two things have improved my quality of sleep (and life) drastically, which is especially important around the holidays!
7. Pitch In & Do Your Part
It feels really good to pull your weight as a house guest. Do the dishes, run to the grocery, offer to cook, tidy up the common spaces. Help out your hosts! Even if you don’t feel like it, push yourself to do your part. It will help you feel like part of the community, and contribute to an overall sense of belonging and connection – which is what this season is all about.
Resist the temptation to compare who is doing what. Again, you can ONLY control yourself! We don’t know other people’s energy levels, wellness levels, or intentions. Let’s not assume anything or fall back on old story patterns from childhood. Don’t wait until you are asked, just do it. Don’t expect gratitude or for anyone to even notice – do it because it fills your heart with joy.
8. Limit Your Cups of Cheer
While I mentioned this above, limiting your drinking is one of the best ways to bolster your emotional and physical resilience during the holidays. Drinking is so over-hyped this time of year. Every Christmas party seems to center around it, and having a glass of wine (or seven) is a socially acceptable way to beat the winter blues and holiday overwhelm. Try mediTating instead of mediCating, and see what you can learn about yourself if you lean into moments of discomfort. Get under your triggers, flip the script, and instead only have a drink when things are really positive, not because you “need” one. Be super mindful of the fueling affects alcohol can have on drama and discord. And track your drinks! Here’s some info on how many are safe to consume.
9. Defend Your Sleep
I’m talking about sleep so much here because it is your ULTIMATE defense against emotional vulnerability that can leave you susceptible to holiday overwhelm! I recently had friends visiting me in New Mexico, who continually yawned on their trip and said, “I have no excuse to be tired. I’m on vacation.” On the contrary, vacationing is often the time when we can become most exhausted! Think about it: we are finally coming off an adrenaline spike from work, we’re out of our day-to-day routine, and putting more pressure on ourselves to participate in activities. On top of that, relaxing is just hard work. We’re often finally giving our bodies a chance to chill for the first time in weeks or even months. Be gentle with yourself, and carve out time for plenty of rest.
Think about your bedtime in advance, tack on plenty of wind-down time to read alone in bed or do whatever you need to do before sleep, and insulate yourself against excess light and noise (revisit your packing list!). I used to completely toss my wind-down ritual out the window when visiting home. It finally dawned on me that, in order to be the MOST present I can be with my loved ones, I need a minimum of eight hours of sleep. Period. And after a day of jam-packed socializing and activities, I need wind-down time before I can fall asleep.
Consider staying in a hotel, rather than bunking on the couch, floor, or noisy guest room. If you can afford it, explain to your family that a hotel will allow you to return well-rested and ready to make merry! It will also help others to set a schedule – if they know you’re coming back at a certain time, perhaps there will be more coordinated quality time together!
10. Remember Self-Compassion
I want you to do three things when you begin to feel triggered: (1) Reflect on how each interaction is affecting your nervous system, (2) meet your basic needs, and (3) remember self-compassion.
Mindfulness means noticing when your external environment is affecting your internal ecosystem. Listen to your breath, feel the tightness in your muscles, pay attention to your exhaustion. Become aware of your nervous system – when you go into fight, flight, freeze mode, just simply notice it. If you notice it, you will bring attention to it, and attention IS love. When we bring love to our felt experience, we can begin to heal it. It really is that easy.
Meeting your basic needs means – again – NOTICING when you are hungry, thirsty, tired, or overwhelmed. Paying attention to how you feel might be difficult at first, or feel self-centered, but I promise it will get easier with time. Often when we’re feeling grumpy, all we need is a meal, a sip of water, a nap, or a walk around the block! And last but not least, my fav self-compassion go-to is to place my hand over my heart and say to myself, “This is really hard right now.”
Above all else, forgive yourself when you can’t always honor these self-care strategies while home for the holidays! There is nothing wrong with indulging in some festive treats, staying up an extra hour to have a conversation with your brother, or missing a workout. This is not another way for us to compare ourselves to each other or wield control over ourselves. These are ways to increase our emotional resources so we can have a positive experience with loved ones during the holidays. Self-care gets so readily sacrificed this time of year. Prioritize it and see what shifts in your holiday season! And don’t forget to check out my 7 Rituals for a Mindful Holiday Season here.
Happy Holidays, Dear Ones! I’m curious to know what your self-care survival strategies include? I’m so grateful for each and every one of you, and am wishing you a restful, nourishing holiday.