It’s the holidays — the most wonderful time of the year. ’Tis also the season of extra running around and having a lot on our to-do lists.
If you feel harried, we get it. But don’t forget that embracing the hustle and bustle that comes with this time of year can meet a pretty basic need: connection with family and friends.
Holiday traditions like gift giving, gatherings, and decorating can be stress-inducing because of their financial and time costs. But don’t forget that they can be a form of self-care, too, says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Sonoma County, California.
“Our mental, emotional, and physical health is bolstered when we’re connected to others in meaningful ways,” says Dr. Manly. “And the holidays are the perfect time to immerse ourselves in the mood-boosting delight of sharing connective moments with friends and family.”
What’s more, she adds, holiday plans and traditions are more likely to feel precious and meaningful after time spent apart throughout the pandemic: “Having been deprived of our connective celebrations, it makes sense that we’re cherishing them all the more this holiday season.”
Read on to learn more about why these holiday activities can count as self-care — and how to make sure you’re not overextending yourself this season.
Self-care is all the steps you take to tend to your physical and emotional health in the ways you are best able to do so.
“We all have physical, emotional, and social needs,” says Natalie Capano, a licensed mental health counselor with Cobb Psychotherapy in New York City. And we need to make time for a variety of self-care practices that meet all those needs, including the social ones, she says.
Holiday traditions can provide a sense of grounding and relief during the busy holiday season, she notes. They provide a sense of familiarity that's comforting during times of increased stress. It’s all self-care, Capano says.
While not all holiday traditions and rituals are thought of as health-promoting (seasonal sweets and staying up way past bedtime to ring in a new year, for example), if you enjoy them in moderation, they can certainly be part of a healthy lifestyle. That’s because they help you fulfill some of these fundamental needs of connection and belonging, Manly explains.
RELATED: Top Self-Care Tips for Taking Care of You
Holiday traditions provide us with an opportunity to focus on what unites us in a world that often feels isolating, Manly says.
“When we share in traditions that have been passed on from prior generations, we feel connected to those who are with us and those who are not,” she explains. “And, when new traditions are fostered and celebrated, we feel interconnected, knowing that we’ve offered a part of ourselves that may become part of future generations’ traditions.”
Research shows that participation in family rituals (actually doing them year after year and not just reminiscing about them) boosts feelings of closeness with other family members and self-reported enjoyment (read: happiness), according to a study published in October 2016 in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.
A previous large review of 32 studies that investigated how rituals (holiday celebrations, family reunions, and Sunday dinners) affected the psychological well-being of families concluded that, indeed, they promote a strong sense of personal identity in individuals along with feelings of connection.
And let’s not forget the obvious: Many holiday traditions and rituals are fun. You (or your family) probably started doing them because you enjoy them, which is a benefit in itself, Manly says. “Engaging in nonwork activities can be deeply rewarding.”
Baking cookies, decorating your home, or writing holiday greeting cards can all be relaxing and restorative, too, which means they can be good for mental health, she adds. “Many people feel recharged and relaxed when sharing holiday traditions with others.”
Relaxing activities help lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the body, improving sleep and overall well-being, says Meghan Marcum, PsyD, the chief psychologist at A Mission for Michael, a mental and behavioral health treatment center in San Juan Capistrano, California. Interacting or bonding with others triggers the release of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that promotes feelings of emotional security and attachment, research shows.
How can you reap all the self-care benefits of the season and not feel overwhelmed by them? First of all, don’t overdo it, Dr. Marcum says — it’s easy to overextend yourself (be it financially, emotionally, or when it comes to the season’s culinary offerings).
It is important to note that, for some, holiday traditions are stress-inducing. Holiday traditions don’t necessarily bring up fond memories for everyone, depending on your background and life experiences.
If holiday festivities and to-dos aren't feeling like self-care to you and are instead feeling burdensome, here are some tips.