Under normal circumstances, the holiday season can be a stressful time. Between school concerts, Santa visits, and shopping to find those perfect gifts—most of us barely have time to catch our breath. It’s not surprising then that this year, with COVID-19, many of us are already experiencing skyrocketing stress levels on top of the usual holiday stuff. Add to that missing celebrating the season with loved ones in person and financial struggles—this Christmas season is proving to be like no other we’ve ever known.
Thankfully, there are ways to help alleviate some of this tension. You can avoid stress overload by using your calendar to plan specific days for safe, social-distance visiting, even if it’s via Zoom. And while you’re at it, schedule time to shop, bake, and enjoy some downtime, a no-brainer to help you relax, regroup and reset. To help, we asked experts in the fields of psychology, nutrition, and meditation to weigh in on how we can all weather the storm and make it through the holidays unscathed.
Accept the situation
“One thing we can all agree on is that these are very abnormal times,” says Dr. Jane Simon, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Bernardsville, NJ. “This year’s holiday season will likely be different and difficult. But you’re not in this alone—they will be difficult for almost everyone on the planet.” Reframing your thoughts from worry to acceptance can help make the season feel a bit brighter. Remind yourself this is a challenging time that will eventually pass, and with any luck, next year will be a lot better.
Self-care is crucial for our all-over well-being. “Make an effort to exercise, get enough sleep, eat well, and drink plenty of water. These are the first lines of defense against anxiety and can make a big difference in how we feel,” says Simon. Amy Jackson Rind, a Mindful Nutrition and Women’s Health Consultant in Summit, NJ, agrees. She recommends cutting down on sugar (which she likens to a gas pedal for anxiety and stress) and comfort foods like pasta and bagels and adding more nutrient-dense foods into your diet. Reach for foods high in protein like wild-caught fish, eggs, lean chicken and turkey, chickpeas, and lentils. Many of these are also high in Vitamin B, known to prevent anxiety and recover from energy burnout. Magnesium-rich foods are also a winner—low levels of this mineral can increase anxiety and disrupt sleep. Choose spinach, almonds, black beans, quinoa, and dark chocolate, to reduce cortisol levels and boost mood. Lastly, omega-3 fatty acids will reduce stress hormone surges, so enjoy a holiday favorite of mixed nuts containing pistachios and walnuts. And it’s not only about what you eat, but when you eat. To combat stress, Jackson Rind recommends eating every three to four hours, wrapping up your last meal three hours before bedtime to keep blood sugar and stress hormones stable.
Throughout the day, take time to stop what you’re doing and be present. “Often, in an anxious state, we’re not living in the moment,” says Jean Vitrano, a Mindfulness teacher based in Maplewood, NJ. Meditation trains us to let go of our thoughts and return to sensing ourselves in this particular moment. If we follow our breathing—our inhale and our exhale—we can move to a place of observing, without reacting. Taking simple moments to pause in the day and return to your breath brings a positive shift inside. When meditating, Vitrano says, “having a voice to guide you can help.” She likes Insight Timer, an app with hundreds of guided meditations. The Unplug App and Headspace are two more worth checking out.
Take a breather to restore your inner calm. Studies have shown that spending time outdoors can significantly reduce the stress hormone cortisol within minutes and boost endorphin levels and dopamine production, promoting happiness. Simon says, “get outside for a least a few minutes every day to notice nature’s beauty, whether it’s a colorful bird or a beautiful old tree. It can be comforting to see that most living things are blissfully unaware of our current crises.” Need ideas of where to go? Here are the best NJ hiking trails when you want to take a hike.