Dec. 20, 2021

5 ways to bring calm during the holiday season

UCalgary mental-health professionals share tips for the winter break
Holiday gathering
Relaxing expectations, self check-ins and social connection can all support mental health over the holidays. Unsplash

Those of us working and studying in post-secondary are mostly givers of our time, advice and care for others, which can bring immense joy and fulfilment but often at the expense of self-care. Coming off a busy academic semester has its own set of struggles. Add to that more concern around the ever-changing state of COVID-19, and the holidays may look more like managing decompression than planning for celebration.

The impact of long-term uncertainties created by the pandemic, coupled with the significantly increased demands in our work, study and personal lives, has left many of us exhausted, says Debbie Bruckner, senior director of student wellness, access and support. Coming into the holiday season, she says, there’s a real possibility some of us feel symptoms of burnout or have other mental-health concerns.

“Our baseline has changed with COVID-19 and the resulting adaptations in our work and personal lives,” Bruckner says. “Many people feel additional levels of stress, fatigue, anxiety and a variety of losses.”   

Because of this, Bruckner and Michele Moon, team lead of wellbeing and worklife, suggest a few areas to address that could help lead to a better sense of calm over the holiday season.

1. Check in with yourself

Doing a self check-in on your own well-being over the holidays can go a long way. Asking ourselves questions like: How have I been sleeping? Have I been active? Am I eating well? Do I need to call a close friend or attend a support group? What types of online resources might be helpful? What supports have helped in the past that I could lean on now?

“Sometimes, a self check-in, especially as things slow down, can help call to attention something we may have missed in our rush to the holidays,” says Moon. “When we identify areas where we want to make changes — such as sleep — it is important to give ourselves the space to take small, actionable steps to our goals.”

Check-in with a meditation exercise.

2. Acknowledge that it still might be an extraordinary and difficult time

We are still in the midst of a shifting global pandemic, and holidays may feel more or less significant. They may, for some, highlight a lack of connection to others, or bring up more concern about our own health and/or the health of loved ones. “The holidays can be very difficult at the best of times,” says Bruckner. “It can emphasize feelings of loneliness, sadness, disconnection or otherwise. It can also signal an anniversary. For example, if there has been a loss, recent or not, feelings of grief could come up in more intense ways during this time of year.”

Seasonal celebrations, in particular, can also be unfamiliar, culturally. For all of this, Bruckner emphasizes the importance of self-compassion and allowing those feelings, when they come up, to be recognized and to hold space for them in ways that serve you. Connecting with personally relevant cultural supports and traditions is important, she adds.

Watch a past webinar on resiliency and complete the workbook.

3. Connect to community

“Resilience is as much about connecting to oneself as it is about connecting to one’s community,” says Bruckner. “Both can be real protective factors for mental health and well-being.”

Reaching out and connecting to others could be what helps you through a rough time over the holidays. Bruckner emphasizes this can look different for everyone; maybe it’s a co-worker you feel close to, or a long-lost friend living in a different country. Having supportive people in your circle and connecting to those you feel safe with can be really helpful during this time of year. Connecting virtually may not be ideal; however, each contact signifies a connection.

Send an acknowledgement to a colleague.

4. Relax expectations and create new traditions that serve you

With the bustle of holidays, a number of expectations arise: what needs to get done and off a to-do list; what yearly dish or baking you feel pressure to produce; who you feel you should make time for. You might not even have the interest or inclination to reconsider previous expectations. This, coupled with constant COVID updates and the inevitable comparison that comes with social media scrolling over the holidays, can create pressure. For this, Bruckner likes to pose a question and a challenge:

If there were no expectations, what would you like to do over the holidays? You don’t have to spend the time the way you see others spend it. You can make your own traditions. The world is a different place right now. Ask yourself: What do I need that’s in my control?

This could be as simple as getting out for a walk or reading a favourite book. Or maybe it’s working purposefully on creating new memories to replace ones that cause difficulties, like, for example, previously held traditions that might trigger painful memories or previous trauma.

Identify a self-care plan with this worksheet.

5. Consider practising gratitude

We are all extraordinarily busy with work and school, while possibly feeling constraints or stress in other parts of our lives. Tempering these experiences with the practice of gratitude can elicit positive emotions and has been associated with well-being and better health. “Simple acts such as thanking someone or appreciating small things around us can start to subtly shift our outlook and relationships,” says Moon.

Softness and acknowledgement may be the best gifts we can give ourselves and others over the winter break.

Try one of these gratitude prompts.

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. If you think you or someone you know needs help, please visit resources here.