The topic of mental health during the holidays seems almost like an oxymoron; family is visiting from out of town, routines are disrupted, and travel can be a nightmare. Studies have shown that aspects of flying may cause anxiety among a significant proportion of travelers (McIntosh et al., 1998), and additional studies have shown an increased risk of heart attack around Christmas due to emotional stress (Olsson et al., 2021). Mindfulness practices like meditation, focused attention, and practicing gratitude have been associated with decreases in anxiety and stress (Hoge et al., 2013; Matko & Sedlmeier, 2019), and may be efficacious in beating the holiday blues . Wherever you may find yourself heading into the New Year, below are some tips to help add some zen to your holiday season.

1. Know when to say “no” (to things we can say no to)

If you’re like me, the holidays are almost synonymous with trying to do everything for, well, everyone. Knowing when to say no to optional activities, namely listening to your body and acknowledging when you are feeling overwhelmed or fatigued, will help you feel more even-keeled throughout navigating the winter holidays.

2. Making time to be present

Research has shown that being in the moment may help with anxiety and improve emotional health, and techniques to focus our attention on the present moment may help battle holiday stress (Kiken et al., 2017). One can practice focused attention by trying to identify specific colors in their environment (can you find something blue in the room you’re in? What about green? And so forth).

3. Grounding exercises

  1. Exercises like diaphragmatic breathing (that is, breathing from your diaphragm or ‘stomach’ rather than your chest) help reduce psychological stress and arousal (Ma et al., 2017). You can practice diaphragmatic breathing by envisioning a balloon filling with air in your stomach, and breathing into this balloon to expand from your waist and back. In addition, pacing your breathing by practicing “square (or box) breathing” can help lower your stress levels (Norelli et al., 2022). To engage in square breathing, breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, and exhale out for four seconds (and repeat if necessary!; Norelli et al., 2022).

4. Be kind to yourself

The holidays can be challenging for a variety of personal and external reasons, but being cognizant of how we treat ourselves and speak to ourselves during the holiday season is important. It’s easy to beat yourself up for things unfinished or tasks we can’t get to in a day, but negative self-talk doesn’t help anyone and can add to experiences of anxiety amid an already stressful time.

Written by Kaitlyn O’Neil, M.S.