Avoid the Holiday Miseries—Here’s How to Be Merry All Season Long

Experts share ways to get your mind, body, and spirit in check so you’re unaffected by all the expectations of the season.

In order to fully prepare for the holidays, we must consider not only the glories of the season but also the tortures. The Holiday Miseries, we’ll call them, can take many forms. They can be in the incessant email chain where potluck concerns are exchanged. They can be in the expensive gift you surrender to purchasing in the assumption that every other option will be a disappointment. And they can be in the way you morph into Bridget Jones at a family gathering, making jokes about being a singleton even though you really don’t care (or maybe just a little). But by following a few tips, you won’t be destined to succumb to such sugar-coated agonies this year.

We reached out to experts for ways to let go of expectations and cope with the season’s unpleasantries so you can truly enjoy the holidays. Looking at your mind, body, and spirit, here’s how to feel good this December and start 2020 out in the best way possible (happy singleton or not).

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Karen Cohen, Ph.D., C. Psych, and CEO of the Canadian Psychological Association, shares five ways to get your mind in a healthy state, so you can stress less, tame your anxious thoughts, and have a relaxing holiday.

1. Create reasonable expectations

“Stress results when the things that are demanded of us exceed our ability to cope,” says Dr. Cohen. Start by editing your to-do list. Ask yourself: Is this realistic? Can I accomplish all these things? Whose expectations are they? Must I also bake a vegan version of my dessert for the potluck or will a store-bought vegan dessert option suffice? (Answer: Duh.)

2. Decrease demand and increase time spent with loved ones

“Holidays put a lot of pressure on all of us and we all want to have the experience we think we should have,” says Dr. Cohen. “Recognize what’s going to be important to you to get through the season.” Put the events you value most to the top of your to-do list—this will help you stress less about checking off every line. As for which items should be considered more important, Dr. Cohen recommends prioritizing experiences over gift-related tasks. “Research tells us people whose holiday experiences focus on relationships and activities with others report feeling happier than others who focus on gift-giving,” says Dr. Cohen.

3. Stay in control

Holiday Misery #136: Required attendance to parties and gatherings you have zero desire to attend. How do you ease the stress and anxiety you may feel ahead of and during these occasions? You stay in control, says Dr. Cohen. Do this by choosing when you arrive, who you go with, who you talk to, how long you stay, what you indulge in, and how you enjoy yourself. For the things you can’t control, be ready for them. “You can’t control what other people are going to say, but you can control how it affects you.” Prepare answers ahead of time to uncomfortable questions you may be asked, and remember you aren’t obligated to offer a detailed reply. One way to avoid a topic that makes you uncomfortable? Be the one asking the questions.

4. Exercise your internal dialogue

When you’re in a stressful situation (think: traffic that’s preventing you from getting to that party you have no desire to attend), your self-talk has the power to get you agitated. “It comes down to coping strategies,” says Dr. Cohen. “Accept that this is the way it is, and you’ll be less likely to feel worked up.” Take deep breaths and remember there are some things out of your control. Being stressed is only making the situation worse for yourself.

5. Find your coping mechanisms

“Know what you can do to be good to yourself,” says Dr. Cohen. “If you know it’s important for you to exercise every day or do a relaxation exercise, make time to do it.” Holiday stress can take a toll on your health, so lining up strategies that help you feel good can keep your mind calm in both the moment and the future.

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Nike Fit Squad Trainer Jennifer Lau and registered dieticians Reisha and Rebecca Harper share how to get your body feeling good in the busy weeks before and during the holidays, and tips for making smart nutrition choices so you feel your best.

1. Get your nutrients

The Harper twins always recommend being mindful of what you choose to eat. This is particularly important during the holiday season when festive treats and goodies are around every corner. Their advice? Opt for healthy options when you can, and let yourself enjoy the treats you love. “On a daily basis, we recommend a ‘flex’ approach to eating, choosing to eat the healthiest things 80 percent of the time and then relaxing 20 percent of the time,” say the Harper twins. “Focusing on eating a majority of plant-based foods in your regular daily intake will provide the essential micronutrients, phytonutrients, fibre, protein, fat, and carbs that your body needs (and craves!) to maintain good health and to combat disease and sickness.” This eating approach leaves room in your daily food and drinks intake for your favourite treats. So eat the hearty grain bowl, but eat the Christmas cookies too.

2. No saving calories

“Don’t starve yourself with the intent of saving up calories over the course of the day so you can eat and drink all that you desire at the party,” say the Harper twins. “You’ll wind up feeling low-energy and possibly hangry by the afternoon and then overindulge at the party.” Instead, pace yourself and be aware of your options. Before a party, consume plant-based foods for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and drink plenty of water. At the party, if you wish to indulge, do so guilt-free. Think about what you’re eating, and slow down. Don’t eat until you’re full—only eat until you’re satisfied, say the Harper twins.

3. Remember the booze blues

Fact: The more we socialize, the more alcohol we consume, the more likely we’ll have booze blues the following day. “These rough mornings affect productivity throughout the day and can damper your celebratory mood,” say the Harper twins. Be mindful of your drinking, and have water and sparkling water between alcoholic beverages to stay hydrated. “If you do overindulge on alcohol, try drinking coconut water or Emergen-C once at home and the next morning to help reduce those hangover symptoms,” say the Harper twins.

4. Choose a realistic fitness routine

“Moving and sweating through the holidays is a great way to help offset what can be indulgent and increased sedentary activity through the holidays,” says Lau. She shared with us 15-minute daily workout routines (check them out in our Holiday Highlight on our Instagram page!) that’ll help your body feel good. Why are these workouts so effective this time of year? “Each series targets strength, cardiovascular and core training, so keeping up with these workouts will help ensure your fitness doesn’t fall to the wayside,” says Lau.

5. Make time to exercise

Holiday Misery #206: Having too much fun at the holiday party, and having to choose between waking up at your pre-planned time to work out or giving your body that extra time to sleep. “If you can push through and make it to your workout then do it,” says Lau. “Especially since exercise in the morning can be the key to setting up the rest of your day—you may experience higher energy levels and will be more inclined to choose healthier food options post-workout.”

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Anne Bokma, journalist and author of My Year of Living Spiritually, shares ways to concentrate on your spirit to have a more fulfilling holiday.

1. Find joy

Joy is found by not only spending time with the people you love but also keeping your expectations realistic and understanding that no family is perfect, says Bokma. “Let go of perfection and aim for presence,” she says. This can help you connect with yourself and others on a spiritual level. “Spirituality is deepened by meaning, connection and quiet time, so look for ways to incorporate these into the season,” says Bokma.

2. Practice gratitude

“It’s the most important spiritual practice there is—and it’s strengthened when we write down exactly what it is we are thankful for on a regular basis,” says Bokma. “A gratitude practice gives us a collection of life’s small positive moments, which can help keep us in a festive mood.” What’s more, it can help make those knit-pickers in your life tolerable.

3. Release yourself from feelings of obligation

“Women bear most of the burden of making the holidays happen,” says Bokma. “It’s worth questioning why we feel this obligation.” Instead of worrying about managing the chaos of the holidays, share the load. Assign tasks to family members or cross them off entirely if the stress of them outweighs their importance. Make it a priority to free up your calendar so you have time to enjoy the season.

4. Live by the mantra “what other people think of me is none of my business”

When you can, surround yourself with those who accept you and the choices you make. When you have to be around people with strong opinions, prepare ahead of time. “Instead of being reactive to intrusive questions from family members, we can engage in practices that help us gain a greater sense of emotional stability and spiritual calm, including meditating, journaling, spending time in nature, practicing yoga, and singing,” says Bokma. “These things can help fortify us for those times when we feel challenged.”

5. Beat loneliness by finding peace

“The more at peace we are with ourselves, the less we will experience loneliness,” says Bokma. Make plans and schedule your favourite activities with yourself. “Learn to get comfortable with your own company and you’ll reduce the times you feel lonely,” says Bokma. And when you’re feeling like you could use some company, organize a New Year potluck and get that email chain started all over again.

Now that you know how to avoid the Holiday Miseries, check out our holiday gift guide, which can help you find budget-friendly gifts that won’t disappoint.