The holiday season can always be a stressful time for many people, even when we are looking forward to that vacation time. Here is our guide to why the season often means a time for the winter blues, holiday stress, and what you can do about it. 

This year presents some greater challenges than usual because of the pandemic, but all these tips and tricks can help to de-stress and boost your mental health this season. Here is our guide to the top five stressors over the winter holidays, and what to do to minimize them:

1. Less Sunlight

Getting less sunlight over the winter holidays can be a major source of stress. The science is clear—less sunlight does cause direct changes to the brain’s serotonin levels. Because the earth is tilted away from the sun in winter, this means some people experience what is known as seasonal affective disorder, or depression symptoms that tend to show up when days are shorter and there is less sunlight.

Even in people who don’t have seasonal affective disorder, lower mood is possible in winter. If you can get outside when it’s sunny, that helps, but it also may not be possible to get enough sunlight to maintain a steady mood. This means it’s the perfect time to consciously set aside time to do the things each day that make you feel positive and relaxed. Getting light-moderate cardio exercise such as walking, jogging, or cycling on most days can help.

2. Family Stress and Isolation

The holidays can be a time that reminds us of interpersonal stressors in our lives, and for many people it can feel like an isolating time. That has never been more true than 2020 because of the pandemic, and putting conscious effort into reconnecting with our loved ones is essential for mental health. 2020 is altering our family traditions, and that can cause even more holiday stress. Creating new traditions can be an empowering way to reduce some of that stress.

If you can’t be with friends or family for this holiday season, consider spending extra time on the phone or video chat to make sure you’re interacting. This can sound obvious, but when the mood dips it often becomes difficult to reach out. Making the effort to call loved ones even if you don’t feel like it can help if you experience symptoms of seasonal depression. If you find these types of interactions stressful, make sure to do something nice by yourself to unwind, like a solo hike, a cup of hot tea, or a hot bath. 

3. Difficulty Exercising

The holidays can be one of the toughest times to work out. Between traveling, hosting, gift giving, cold temperatures, and fewer hours in the day, it’s no wonder it’s so hard to find the time! However, even just a short workout can go a long way toward boosting mood and busting holiday stress.

Consider this a time of year to take it a bit easier—let yourself do a simpler or shorter workout, but aim for consistency. Just getting out for a twenty minute jog or doing a short workout video at home can do wonders for your winter blues.

4. Changes to Routine

The holiday season is a much-needed break from our typical routines, but this can sometimes cause stress. Being out of whack with our normal day-to-day activities such as when we sleep and wake up, what we do for work, what we eat, who we see, and what types of physical activity we do can all cause the body and mind stress.

One of the best solutions for coping with this change in routine while still getting the break you deserve is to practice some kind of mindfulness. Meditation, yoga, or journaling are all great things to try, but it can also be as simple as checking in with yourself throughout the day to see how you’re feeling, and what you might be doing as part of your normal routine if you weren’t on vacation.

5. Sleep Disruption 

Sleep disruption can be a huge problem for many people over the holidays. The shorter days and dimmer light directly impact our circadian rhythms, and travel or having people over at home can make for disrupted sleep. All of this can cause stress, which can lead to anxiety, which can sometimes keep us up at night. Studies show the process of REM sleep is linked to diminishing anxiety, so not getting enough sleep causes even more stress, creating a vicious cycle.

To make sure you’re rested, good sleep hygiene is more important than ever to combat holiday stress. Make sure you have a quiet, dark, and temperature-controlled area to sleep each night. Avoid exercise and large meals about four hours before bed, and avoid screen time about two hours before bed. Getting some exposure to bright light such as a walk outside in the early hours of the day can also lead to deeper sleep that night.