Looking to ease the anxiety this holiday season? Learn three ways to create little sparks of joy.
The holidays are meant for celebration, reunion, cheer, and relaxation. But that doesn’t mean they will be stress-free.
If you find the holiday season anxiety-provoking, you’re not alone. The pressure to buy the right gift, cook a delicious meal, travel to see family, or put on the perfect event can trigger stress.
The good news is that a carefully planned strategy can help you face difficult situations head-on—and it doesn’t include avoidance. Staying away from stressful events won’t help you work on the issues that lead to your anxiety. It may seem counterintuitive but, in the long run, anxiety increases with avoidance. Instead, change your approach by implementing the 3 C’s strategy: connection, compassion, and celebration.
With the three C’s, you can make positive memories while drawing out the community spirit, love, and warmth that is the hallmark of a meaningful holiday.
Enjoy Time for Connection
“Connection is why we’re here: it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
One key benefit of the holidays is that they can make us feel connected to others. While the pandemic forced many of us to isolate or hyperfocus on getting stuff done, the holiday season can bring people together. Whether that means calling a friend you haven’t seen in a while, traveling across the country to see family, or volunteering your time to help others, the holiday season is a great opportunity to create new connections and strengthen old ones.
Focusing on the connections that you have during the holidays can do a lot for your mental health. Research tells us that we are social beings. Humans are wired to connect, and a strong interpersonal network can have a positive effect on our health. Experiencing social support can reduce the symptoms of depression and stress, strengthen the immune system, and improve mental wellness overall.
A recent study of patients in long-term care homes found that residents who had stronger social connections were more likely to have a better mental health outcome; other studies have shown that physical health and longevity are positively influenced by supportive relationships too.
“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.”
—The Harvard Study of Adult Development
What this tells us is that when we create supportive interpersonal relationships, we’re providing ourselves with a healthy environment for our mental and physical well-being.
It’s also beneficial to get some much-needed time to relax and reflect on what matters most to you. Feeling connected to friends and family is even more important at this moment, as COVID-19 has led many of us to worry about the health of those we love and to be separated from them. Hopefully everyone, even those with ongoing health risks, will find a way to safely spend time connecting in-person with loved ones too.
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Compassion is quite different from empathy, but we often use the terms interchangeably. While empathy—placing yourself in the experience of what others are going through—is an important skill to cultivate if you’re trying to enhance a close relationship, working in a helping profession, or attempting to settle a conflict, too much of it may lead to burnout. But, science has proven that offering compassion—sharing kindness in the midst of suffering—has significant mental health benefits. Whether your compassion is for yourself or toward others, it has been shown to increase self-esteem, reduce stress, strengthen relationships, and improve physical and mental health.
Unfortunately, it can be easy to lose sight of the meaning of a special day and let the hustle and bustle of it all stress you out. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. The holiday season is a great time to practice kindness toward others. Engaging in acts of compassion can facilitate new or stronger connections, offer solace to those who are suffering, and reduce anxiety by doing something altruistic. Keep in mind that this pandemic has been hard on all of us, so be extra compassionate to yourself as well.
Fully Participate in Celebration
“Life should not only be lived, it should be celebrated.”
Celebrating is a special, memorable part of life. During holidays, celebrations keep you focused on good feelings and the positive aspects of life, rather than on the stressful, negative ones.
When you appreciate being in the presence of people you care about, creating or finding gifts under budget, toasting to achievements, or even just getting a laugh out of your uncle, you are making the holidays better—and healthier both mentally and physically. Warm gatherings are also a perfect time to celebrate the successes of our loved ones. After all, acknowledging even small accomplishments can help us grow and keep us motivated throughout the year.
Practicing gratitude is also strongly associated with greater levels of happiness. Studies have shown that being grateful or thankful, and appreciating our blessings, can reduce anxiety and depression and improve mood and relationships.
For anyone with an eating disorder, celebrations can be challenging because they often center around eating. If that’s true for you, make a plan that is realistic and healthy. And, if you need support, please ask for it.
“Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores.”
—Harvard Health Publishing
Create Little Sparks of Joy
Beyond the more obvious ways to prepare for happy holiday gatherings, you might find that recreating old rituals or building new ones can add a positive spark. Maybe you want to look at pictures from past holidays to be reminded of childhood rituals you enjoyed. You can even talk to others about how they celebrate to get some new ideas. Meaningful rituals are not only comforting, they have been found to reduce anxiety and help manage stress.
As the holidays approach, take an active approach to boost your good feelings and lay down joyful memories.
Maybe you’ll incorporate old or new comforting rituals or take photos of celebrations to share with those who attend.
You might want to offer compassion to someone who is suffering, fully participate in being connected during celebrations, count your blessings, or cheer on the successes of others.
To make the festivities even better, you might want to make it a point to tell someone why you’re grateful to have them in your life or write a long overdue thank you note. Remember, a spirit of gratitude can even benefit your health.
How will you create little sparks of joy this holiday season?
Bethell, J., Aelick, K., Babineau, J., Bretzlaff, M., Edwards, C., Gibson, J. L., Hewitt Colborne, D., Iaboni, A., Lender, D., Schon, D., & McGilton, K. S. (2021). Social connection in long-term care homes: A scoping review of published research on the mental health impacts and potential strategies during COVID-19. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 22(2), 228–237.e25.
Cregg, D. R., Cheavens, J. S. (2021). Gratitude interventions: Effective self-help? A meta-analysis of the impact on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Journal of Happiness Studies, 22, 413–445. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00236-6
Disabato, D. J., Goodman, F. R., Kashdan, T. B., Short, J. L., & Jarden, A. (2016). Different types of well-being? A cross-cultural examination of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Psychological Assessment, 28(5), 471–482. https://doi.org/10.1037/pas0000209
Harvard Health (April 14, 2021). Giving thanks can make you happier. Harvard Health Publishing.
Lang, M., Krátký, J., & Xygalatas, D. (2020). The role of ritual behaviour in anxiety reduction: An investigation of Marathi religious practices in Mauritius. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 375(1805), 20190431. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2019.043
Martino, J., Pegg, J., & Frates, E. P. (2015). The connection prescription: Using the power of social interactions and the deep desire for connectedness to empower health and wellness. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 11(6), 466–475. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827615608788
Mineo, Liz. (2017). Genes are nice, but joy is better. The Harvard Gazette.
Pace, T. W., Negi, L. T., Adame, D. D., Cole, S. P., Sivilli, T. I., Brown, T. D., Issa, M. J., & Raison, C. L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(1), 87–98. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.011
Zessin, U., Dickhäuser, O., & Garbade, S. (2015). The relationship between self-compassion and well-being: A meta-analysis. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being, 7(3), 340–364. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12051All Blogs