Tips you can give your patients to help keep their holidays healthy
Reminding your patients (and perhaps yourself) to practice self-care can help make the season calm and bright

Tips you can give your patients to help keep their holidays healthy

by Benjamin Balderson, PhD., Group Health Research Institute Research Associate and Group Health Clinical Psychologist.

The holiday season can be a joyous time for many. But it can also bring on some not-so-healthy behaviors such as too much alcohol, overeating, emotional stress, and even depression.  As a psychologist, I'm often asked by my patients and other providers for ways to survive the holiday season. Here are some practical tips that you can use when you talk with your patients about holiday self-care.

Beat the holiday blues
Seeing family, remembering past times, or seasonal affective disorder can contribute to feeling down during this time of year. Here are some ways to fight the holiday blues:

  • Stick with your exercise.  This time of year can bring extra work, more social invitations, and increased financial pressure. When there’s so much going on, it’s easy to drop your usual physical activity. Exercise can help to improve mood and relieve stress—while helping burn those extra holiday calories. 
  • Get outside. It can be hard to get enough light and fresh air at this time of year. Try to build some outdoor time into your daily schedule. The vitamin D from the sun can boost your energy.  
  • Seek positive social support. Not all family and friends are created equal. Make sure to have contact with people who lift your spirits or give you the support you need. 
  • Practice gratitude. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed during this time. Taking moments to reflect on what is going well or making a daily list of things we are grateful can increase a sense of well-being.
  • Get care when you need it. If you notice that you typically get depressed in the winter months, talk to your doctor. Setting up a “coping plan” in advance can help.

Be mindful of your alcohol use
Whether it’s because of holiday fun or holiday stress, alcohol and drug use tends to spike at this time of year. Here are some tips for patients who drink:

  • Remember your limits. Try to keep alcohol use to 1-2 drinks per day.
  • Enjoy a non-alcoholic drink. Having them between drinks that contain alcohol can help.
  • Ask yourself why you are drinking.  Is it because of stress, social obligation, or to try to have fun? Understanding our motivation can help us find healthier alternatives. 
  • Be a designated driver. Keep yourself and your loved ones safe while taking pressure off yourself to drink.

For patients who don’t drink because of problems with alcohol, remind them to:

  • Be pro-active. This is a high-risk time for relapse, so plan ahead.
  • Stick to your program. Plan for more meetings and more support.
  • Avoid your triggers. It is okay to miss a party or not see someone. Give yourself permission to do what is best for you. 

Enjoy holiday treats—without overdoing it
This is an easy time to indulge in too much food. But we can still enjoy the holidays without stuffing ourselves.  Here’s how:

  • Eat what's best for you first. Fill up on healthy foods before you go to a party, or offer to bring a healthy dish to a potluck. This can help decrease temptations for high-calories food.
  • Get some distance from the snacks. Standing away from the buffet table will help you avoid impulsive grabs for food.
  • A piece, not the pie. Limiting portion sizes can be a great way to enjoy a taste of that yummy treat without going overboard.
  • Heart-healthy holiday recipes can help. Check out our post from last year on healthy holiday eats. 

Shake off holiday stress
Increased stress during the holidays is common, but it can decrease our enjoyment and even lead us to dread holiday events. It can also make us more likely to catch the cold or flu. These tips will help patients cope with holiday stress:

  • Don’t overdo it. It’s important to pace yourself. Consider shortening a holiday trip to one or two nights instead of three or four—or plan to stay a couple hours at a party rather than all night. Set healthy limits on socializing, spending, and shopping—and try not to sweat the small stuff.
  • Try a different approach. If you have a holiday tradition or a family gathering that is always stressful, try doing it differently.  Explore ways to make it more fun—or decide to simply take it off the list this year.
  • Do something for yourself. Make time for yourself and slow down a bit—even if that means taking just one  moment to breathe and relax.  These moments can ease stress and help you enjoy special times even more.

Remember it's ok to be you
Not everyone celebrates during the traditional American holiday season.  Some of us are single or divorced, without children, originate from cultures that celebrate at other times, or for many other reasons find ourselves alone during November and December.  

  • Take it easy on yourself.  It’s ok to be you, wherever you are in life.  If you’re not quite where you want to be, remind yourself that there’s time to change things up. Be gentle with yourself.
  • Spend quality time with you.  Winter is a great season to catch up on reading, writing in a journal, or trying new recipes just for your own tastes.
  • Notice what really brings you joy.  Everyone is different in this regard.  You may feel happy walking your dog, watching the snow fall, chatting with your neighbors, sitting quietly by yourself, or dancing to loud music.  These little moments, when noticed, can add to a sense of peace inside.

From watching alcohol intake to eating mindfully to pacing activities, these self-care suggestions for your patients (and perhaps yourself) can be powerful ways to help make the season calm and bright.  

Here are Dr. Balderson's tips in a patient-friendly handout that you can customize by adding your clinic name or logo--or by pasting the content into your template for patient handouts.

Benjamin Balderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and researcher at Group Health in Seattle. His work focuses on how to help patients and providers improve self-management of chronic mental and physical health difficulties. He has particular interest in the areas of anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain management, complex medical care such as HIV and patient-provider communication. 

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