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Wellness Wednesday

Mental health and the holidays

'Rethinking gift giving is important,' says Mary Jo Kreitzer.
'Rethinking gift giving is important,' says Mary Jo Kreitzer.Corey Seeman / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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by Jill Riley

December 22, 2021

The holidays are a time of joy - but they can also be a difficult time, charged with anxiety. University of Minnesota wellness expert Mary Jo Kreitzer tells Jill Riley why this is, and shares some tips for maintaining mental health during the holiday season.

Jill Riley: What are some of the ways people struggle with mental health around the holidays? Why are the holidays such a charged or difficult time for so many of us? Has it always been this way?

Mary Jo Kreitzer: Well, even when we're not in a pandemic, the holidays are stressful for many people. There are lots of sources of stress, when you think about it. There's schedules, there's traveling, there's decorating, there's family dynamics, there's food preparation, shopping, gifting. But I think one of the biggest sources of stress over the holidays is expectations.

Sometimes the most tough expectations are those that we impose on ourselves. So it's awesome that people feel this pressure to bake and shop and decorate, host parties. In essence, we're trying to do too much over too short a period of time. And that can make it stressful; it can also make us tired. Both of those things - stress and fatigue - can make anxiety and depression even worse.

When it comes to taking care of ourselves and our family and our friends and mental health heading into the holidays, I wonder if we could talk about some tips that you might have for the audience right now.

So my first tip is: focus on what really matters and figure that out. I think sometimes it's really important to ask your family or those who celebrate with what's really most important to you and find out if there's rituals and traditions that people want to keep or let go - or if there's completely new things that you could do that would be more meaningful. So get input and don't be afraid to make some changes. I think that's one of the most important tips - and of course, you know, ask for help.

The other thing I think is super important is to be flexible. Schedules can be such a challenge if you've got young kids or extended families or blended families. So you know, think about gathering on non-holiday dates. Focus on smaller gatherings and change it up: instead of having a big sit down meal, maybe do something different than that that's lighter on food and just more [about] the gathering aspect.

I think rethinking gift giving is important. I like the idea of gifting time and gifting experiences, because a lot of us don't need more stuff. I know a lot of parents that are implementing what they call the three gift rules: give your kids something they want, one thing; give them something they need, which could be a hat; and something to read.

Another gift giving tip is to focus on gifting to others. During this time of year, it's great to to even think of adapting another family that is in need and gifting to that family instead of shifting to our own where we don't need as much stuff.

That in itself is pretty good for our mental health: just helping others or reaching out to someone.

Absolutely. There's actually scientific evidence that there's a healing power of doing good. When we get outside of ourselves and do good for others, that can be hugely helpful.

As much as we yearn to get together with family, it can also be stressful and there are a lot of reasons. I think there's old patterns that resurface. There's competition, sometimes bad communication, sometimes too much drinking. There can be political differences as well as just overall, you know, dysfunction around healthy behavior. So, there's three different approaches I'd like to talk about.

One is that you can always listen and really try to listen to understand - but you don't need to respond. A good tip is to do everything you can to avoid escalation. So that's one tip is just listen. Another approach is, you can listen and acknowledge that you've heard - and also acknowledge, it's okay to not agree. But avoid engaging, because sometimes if you engage, that just escalates. And a third approach is to just remove yourself from the situation.

I think I'm gonna get “don't escalate and don't respond” just tattooed on my arm, so I can look down.

What's one of the reasons why mindfulness can be so helpful. Mindfulness really simply is just being in the present moment, which is actually a really hard thing to do. Because we often are anticipating the future, we're in the past. So when we actually work on mindfulness, we notice how we're feeling in the moment. And so if somebody asks an embarrassing question or challenges something you've said, instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to your mind, if we are actually in a place of mindfulness, we can tell if we're feeling angry or annoyed or challenged or embarrassed. And at that moment, we can pause and then choose what our response might be. And that's still where the power of mindfulness really is. Because if we are allowed to choose our response, we can decide that we're going to acknowledge and remove ourselves, avoid engaging…all of those things that I just talked about.

There may be some people that are going through something really hard during the holiday season. What's your advice?

The holidays are not a happy time for everyone, and it's important to keep that in mind. If someone has experienced significant loss - it might be a death of a loved one, or a recent divorce, or another major loss - reach out to them and let them decide how and when they want to engage. I think it's really important to not pressure people or create burdens from expectations that will add to their stress, but I think one of the most important things to know is that there's gonna be a lot of empty seats this year at the table because of the number of people who have died over the past year and a half from the pandemic.

If somebody has lost somebody, don't be afraid to talk about the person who's died for fear that you'll make the person who experienced the loss sad. Sharing memories and stories can be very healing, and actually it helps to keep the memory of the person who died alive. Even just saying, “I'm sure you're thinking about Bob today. I'm thinking about Bob too. One of my favorite memories about Bob is…” and then sort of sharing that memory. You won't go wrong by honoring the memory of somebody that another person is grieving.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on SpotifyAppleRSSRadio PublicStitcher, or Amazon Music.

Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Anna Weggel and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License. This week's photo is by Corey Seeman (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). The image was altered: it was cropped, filtered to greyscale, and supplemented with a logo.