Check out these self-care tips for a happier holiday season

Keep your expectations for the holiday season—and what you can realistically accomplish and give of yourself—in check, says Tracey Musarra Marchese. "If you're overdoing it with trying to create the 'perfect' holiday, you're going to be exhausted—and where's the enjoyment in that?" (Credit: Getty Images)

The “ideal” holiday season doesn’t always match up with our actual lives. And that’s OK.

If you’re feeling a little more “Grinch” and a little less “Buddy the Elf” this holiday season, Tracey Musarra Marchese, professor of practice in the Falk College’s School of Social Work at Syracuse University, has some tips to make your holidays feel a little more joyful, a little more peaceful, and a lot more authentic to your own experience.

If you’re feeling burnt out and overwhelmed

Start by keeping your expectations for the holiday season—and what you can realistically accomplish and give of yourself—in check, Marchese says.

“If you’re overdoing it with trying to create the ‘perfect’ holiday, you’re going to be exhausted—and where’s the enjoyment in that?”

It’s tempting to use the season as an excuse to overindulge in food and alcohol. While Marchese is not trained as a nutritionist, she says using either alcohol (which is a depressant) or sweets/sugar to cope don’t make us feel our best emotionally or physically.

“While these might seem helpful in the short-term, overindulging at the holidays can actually compound or further contribute to feelings of burnout and overwhelm for us,” Marchese says.

If you’re suffering from “comparison fatigue”

Sometimes it feels like social media is designed to make us feel poorly about ourselves, or like we aren’t living up to the standards everyone else is showing on their feeds.

It’s important to recognize that you are likely comparing yourself to “someone else’s highlight reel.” Marchese says.

“The truth is, life isn’t a Hallmark movie—life is messy sometimes and that is okay,” Marchese says. “You can still have lovely, joyful moments that are defined by how you want to enjoy the season. Don’t worry so much about what other people are up to because their social media is probably not depicting their reality, either.”

If you’re feeling particularly down after spending time on social media, setting daily app limits or deleting social media apps altogether for the remainder of December is always an option.

If you have strained or stressful family relationships

There are many reasons why someone might dread spending the holiday season with their families, from simply feeling like you aren’t on the same page with them—ideologically (politically or otherwise)—to having a history of abuse or other trauma in your family. If that’s the case, it’s totally normal not to feel excited to spend time with them and it’s always an option not to spend time with them.

If you do choose to spend time with your family, there are ways to make it easier on yourself. Marchese’s top tips include:

  • Plan ahead for breaks and solitude. “Always have a game plan in your head for breaking away for a 20-minute walk, excusing yourself for some fresh air, or taking a solo trip to the store because you ‘forgot something,’ if needed,” Marchese says. During a longer trip to visit family, incorporate spending time with friends in the area you’ve missed or going to see a movie by yourself.
  • Practice deep breathing. If you’re feeling anxious, stressed out or triggered, your breath can be your best friend. “Practicing deep, slow breathing—into our bellies—can help reset our nervous system and activate what’s called a relaxation response,” says Marchese. “It’s free, takes just seconds or minutes, and can be done anywhere, even at the dinner table.”
  • Remember that you’re an adult now. Even as a college student, you’re an adult, not a child, but “it’s natural when you’re around family to revert to old roles, which may mean being treated as a child and not like the adult that you are,” says Marchese. “You may find yourself falling back into old ways of relating with your family, but it’s helpful to remember that you’re an adult now and you can make different decisions.”

If you’re still confused about what “self-care” actually is

Marchese says she thinks of “self-care” (widely used and rarely defined) in two realms: self-care and communal care.

Self-care entails the basics like adequate sleep, exercise (anything that gets your blood moving—you don’t necessarily have to start an elaborate new workout routine), exposure to daylight, and being mindful about what you put in your body and how it makes you feel,” Marchese says. “It is also about making time for yourself to manage stress through things like meditation, self-reflection, and engaging in enjoyable activities, like hobbies.”

Communal care, Marchese says, means, “Do you have people you can rely on, that help meet your needs, that you have a reciprocal relationship with, that you actually like? Connecting and spending time with the people who ‘get you’ is a great way to offset familial obligations during the holidays.”

If you’re coping with grief and loss this holiday season

If you are grappling with loss, feelings of grief can well up at this time of year, especially if it’s the first holiday season without someone you love.

“Losses come in lots of ways—so it could be a loss of a person through death, but it could also be the loss of a relationship,” says Marchese. “Know that there is no such word as ‘should’ in the grieving process. You are at where you are at, and it takes as long as it takes [to grieve].”

She recommends allowing feelings of grief and sadness to come up when they arise and feeling them fully, but also giving yourself an “exit strategy” from the intense feelings. “If you’re concerned you are going to get ‘stuck’ in those feelings, you might say, ‘OK I’m going to let myself feel what I’m feeling for maybe 20 or 30 minutes, and then I’m going to call a friend or get up and take a walk because I don’t want to find myself falling into a deep pit of despair.'”

Additionally, Marchese suggests journaling about your feelings of grief, writing a letter to your loved one, volunteering, or doing something special to honor their memory as additional coping strategies.

If you feel like you need additional support

“December is a very common time for people to seek the support of a therapist,” says Marchese. Asking your primary care provider for a referral or seeking in-network providers with your health insurer are great starting points if you’re seeking a mental health professional.

If at any point you’re feeling like you may be suffering from depression, like you want to hurt yourself, or are experiencing suicidal ideation, it is time to seek professional help.

For crisis support, call or text 988 or use the live chat at to access the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or go to your nearest emergency room for immediate assistance.

Source: Syracuse University