Increasing Your “Happy” This Holiday Season

by Dr. Nadine Gavin, ND

With the holidays fast approaching, we may be feeling a little more uncertainty this year. In general, holidays carry their fair share of stress, however, at a time where a greater number of Canadians are reporting anxiety and depression, making our mental health a priority may be the best way to navigate the final weeks of 2020. Recently, I have been having a lot of conversations with my patients about strategies that set us up for success over the holidays and common pitfalls to watch out for. The following is a list of holiday dos and don’ts to help us make the most of the season. 

DO Get Outside 

Colder weather can lead to a decrease in time spent outdoors. While nothing feels more festive than cozying up by a fire inside, being outside has positive effects for our mental health. Sunlight raises our serotonin level or “happy hormone” which benefits our mood, focus and cognition. This is especially powerful for individuals that frequently experience low mood or Seasonal Affective Disorder during the winter months.

Sunlight also regulates our circadian rhythm, keeping our sleep and digestion in check, and boosts vitamin D levels, which further protects our mood as well as our immune health. These benefits can be experienced after as little as 10 minutes outside in direct sunlight. 

Takeaway: This year invest in warm clothing and prioritize time outside.

DO Stay Active 

Exercise is one of the best things we can do for mental health. Exercise releases endorphins or our “feel-good hormones,” regulates our stress hormone “cortisol,” and teaches our brain that our behaviours matter. It has been shown to decrease generalized anxiety, alleviate long-term depression and enhance mood within just 5 minutes of exercise. If your gym is no longer an option, get creative with apps like “Nike Training Club” or “Peloton App.” To minimize the risk of injury, gradually increase exercise and schedule rest days in between. Do not exercise if your muscles still feel fatigued or tender from your last workout. As your stamina increases, aim for 30-40 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 4-7 times per week. Personally, running in the winter always requires more mental effort. However, I have yet to regret going out for a run. Check in on your mood before and after exercise and make sure your routine is leaving you feel refreshed. If you find you are more tired, try a less intense activity, like yoga or walking.   

Takeaway: Find something that gets you moving that you enjoy and make it a part of your weekly routine.   

DON’T overindulge in Holiday “Spirits”

Alcohol can go hand and hand with the holiday season. We can turn to alcohol to liven an evening or wind us down after a challenging day. During the holidays when we have more flexible work hours and cause for celebration, alcohol intake tends to increase. The pandemic, for a variety of reasons, has also caused alcohol intake to skyrocket. This has left many with unpleasant side effects that they may not be linking to their evening ritual. 

Alcohol consumption causes a forced release of serotonin and endorphins. In the moment this can make us feel happy, however, this chemical disruption can dysregulate our mood afterward. The more we indulge, the more volatile our moods become. Alcohol is also a depressant. After an evening of drinking, we may wake with low mood or anxiety and not realize the cause. Alcohol also disrupts our sleep and hormones, further wreaking physical and emotional stress on our bodies.

This holiday season consider swapping out alcohol for non-alcoholic holiday drinks (i.e. hot chocolate, egg nog, or my favourite alternatives “coconog” or “almond nog”), teas (I love the DAVID’s Teas holiday line! I recommend Santa’s Secret or Alpine Punch), kombucha, or mocktails. If you choose to indulge, practice moderation or a low alcohol option like spritzers. 

Takeaway: When it comes to alcohol and mental health, less is more.  

DO Opt for Better Stress Coping Techniques 

Two common stress traps are emotional eating and retail therapy. Overindulgence and overspending feel great in the moment, but set us up for an inevitable crash. With holiday eating, try not to abandon all your good diet habits. Overeating can leave us feeling sluggish, uncomfortable, and riddled with guilt. As much as possible, try to continue eating regular meals and be selective when choosing your favourite holiday treats to indulge in. When we eat regular meals and stabilize our blood sugar, we don’t feel so out of control or tempted with treats. Eat treats slowly and mindfully. Savour every bite. This will leave us with more joy from the experience and less likely to overeat.

It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the holidays and, perhaps especially this year, we imagine the perfect gift is needed. Don’t let your good intentions be your downfall. Set a budget and stay within it. Choose personal gifts or heartfelt messages over hefty price tags and don’t break the bank on one day of the year. Your loved ones would not want to be the indirect cause of future stress come January. 

Instead of looking for instant stress relief and gratification from treats and gifts, try incorporating regular stress management techniques into your routine. Some of my favourites include meditation, guided meditations like the “Stop, Breathe, Think” app and reading. These activities give our minds a break from the bombardment of information and multitasking of our daily routine and leave us feeling grounded and focused. 

Takeaway: Practice mindfulness in your weekly routine, diet, and gift giving. 

DON’T go it alone 

This holiday season we may be left mourning the loss of some of our favourite traditions. When we experience low mood, our minds can tell us “no one else understands”, “sharing what I’m feeling with my family will ruin their holidays”, or “it’s better to deal with this on my own.” Do not let negative thoughts cause you to withdraw. A lot of us are struggling with the same emotions. Being physically isolated from one another has made it more difficult to check in and share common experiences. This feeds shame and aggravates depression and anxiety. Reach out to your support network and prioritize quality time, however that may look this year. A lot of social platforms have made it easier for us to connect. Check out “Zoom” or “Skype” for virtual meet ups or “Houseparty” if you’re looking for a way to play games with loved ones. If you have been struggling with your mental health lately, reach out to your health care team or naturopathic doctor. Our clinic offers virtual appointments to safely provide the support you need.

Takeaway: Spend quality time connecting with loved ones safely and ask for help when you need support.  


Wishing you and your family a safe and happy holiday season! 

Yours in health, 

Dr. G


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