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Ten Tips for Staying Well This Holiday Season

  • December 21, 2016 5:55 PM EST

    The holidays are upon us!  While this time of year is exciting and energizing for many people, it can be exhausting and illness-provoking for others.  It is important that we do not get lost in the hustle and bustle of traveling, buying presents, entertaining family and friends, attending parties, and other holiday shenanigans and ensure that we take steps to preserve our mental and physical health.  Here are ten tips to stick to when working to preserve your well-being during the busy holiday season.

    1) Maintain a healthy diet:

    We are bombarded with chocolates, baking, and many other goodies this time of year, whether given as gifts from clients or co-workers, or served during holiday parties.  It is nice to indulge in your favorite treats occasionally, but this time of year we often fall into the pattern of unhealthy eating.  If possible, make an effort to limit sugar intake by requesting your holiday espresso beverage “half-sweet”, restricting your alcohol intake, and limiting the number of treats that you eat.  It also helps to eat as many vegetables as you can (always choosing vegetables over fruit, which is a natural source of sugar), in order to fill yourself with healthy food that provides much-needed vitamins and allows you to feel more “full” so that you eat fewer treats. 

    2) Get out in nature:

    Making time for a walk in the woods or a trip to the mountains can be incredibly therapeutic this time of year.  Just 15 minutes in nature decreases cortisol concentrations by 15% and 2 hours increases mental functioning including attention span and memory by 20%.  So plan to bundle up (if needed) and head outside for a dog walk, hike, snowshoe, or cross-country ski in nature.    

    3) Find time to exercise:

    So often this time of year we move exercise to the bottom of our list of priorities.  This can have detrimental effects on our mental health and can leave us feeling sluggish, tired, and anxious.  Many people have the misconception that unless exercise is performed for at least 30-60 minutes, the benefits are minimal.  In fact, recent studies demonstrate that short bursts of high intensity exercise (20 second sprints on a stationary bike or treadmill with 2 minutes of rest in between for 10 minutes) has equal physical health benefits compared to 50 minutes of steady aerobic exercises (maintaining a steady moderate pace).  This means that even if you have just 20 minutes in the morning to exercise, plan to do something high intensity and know that you are getting the same benefits as someone jogging for almost an hour. 

    4) Practice mindfulness:

    Mindfulness, the non-judgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment, has a plethora of benefits including decreasing stress (no shortage of that during family visits), improving processing of emotions (which can run high this time of year), shortening the duration and severity of colds (who doesn’t get sick during the holidays?), and improving sleep (very important – see #10).  With all of these benefits, how can we not justify taking moments out of our day to pause, tune into our senses (smell, sound, touch, taste), and notice thoughts and sensations as they arise in our mind and body?  When you find yourself waiting in line or stuck in traffic, take a moment to bring attention to your breath and body and tune into yourself.      

    5) Meditate:

    Meditation is a way to formally practice mindfulness and has the same benefits as mentioned above.  While there are many myths and misconceptions around meditation and who can “actually do it”, the reality is that anyone, anywhere, anytime can meditate.  All you need is 5 minutes of quiet stillness when you can sit or lie down, bring awareness to your breath, and notice the sensations and thoughts that arise.  Then without attaching to the thoughts or sensations or letting them carry you into a series of other thoughts or stories, let them go and bring your attention back to your breath. 

    6) Don’t forget to breathe:

    So often we rush through our entire day engaging in shallow breathing only to feel exhausted and depleted by the time the evening rolls around.  Deep conscious breathing has many benefits including improving energy levels, activating the parasympathetic (restorative) nervous system, improving digestion, relieving tension, and reducing reactivity.  Place a hand on your belly and chest and notice where the movement is more predominant.  Then see if you can take 5-10 deep belly breaths when you consciously pull air deep into the chest, move your diaphragm down, and expand your belly. 

    7) Connect with others:

    Satisfying social connections allow us to have a more positive outlook on life, form more secure attachments, have more constructive interactions, and engage in more efficient restorative behaviors.  While there is no shortage of social engagements this time of year, very often they are filled with contrived superficial conversation with people we do not know well.  It is important to continue to make time for the people in our lives with whom we have healthy relationships, so be sure to schedule coffee dates with close friends and family members in between all of the other busy holiday gatherings.   

    8) Make time for play:

    Play time is not just for kids!  Benefits for adults include stress relief (releasing endorphins), improving brain function, stimulating imagination, and improving relationships and connections with others.  Play time is when you forget about work and commitments and are social in an unstructured way.  Examples of ways to engage in play including playing board games, going out for bowling or karaoke, and having unstructured time at the park to build a snowman, make snow angels, or have a snowball fight (assuming you live somewhere with snow!). 

    9) Schedule downtime:

    Downtime is more than doing laundry or catching up on household items in between holiday chaos.  It is inactivity or doing nothing that has a pre-determined goal.  The benefits of down time are numerous, the most important of which is to take a break from the stress and anxiety of decision-making, which is considered a “limited resource” brain activity.  For a few moments during each day, consciously engage in doing nothing and surrender to letting your mind wander in any direction that it chooses.

    10) Get enough sleep:

    Sleep is probably one of the most important activities that we do during the day, despite it feeling like a “pointless waste of time”.  During sleep, our memories are consolidated, tasks replayed, experiences integrated, and emotions processed.  Without the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night, we are at risk of a weakened immune system, impaired brain function, moodiness, and many other physical health problems.  So, while it is tempting to cram as many activities as we can into our holiday schedules, be sure to maintain your typical sleep regimen by setting an alarm for bedtime, turning off electronics 1-2 hours before bed, and limiting caffeine intake within 6 hours of sleep.    

    Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher who also has an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals.  She organizes Veterinary Wellness Workshops & Retreats for veterinarians, technicians, and other veterinary care providers.  To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here.  More information can be found at