6 Ways to Stay (Relatively) Sane + Serene Over the Holidays

Let’s face it: the f-word that first comes to mind when you think of the holiday season might not be festive, is it?

Between visiting relatives you may or may not wish you were related to, shopping for everyone but yourself, trying to take time off work when work won’t seem to end, trying not to gain 17 (more) pounds, finding time alone (outside the bathroom), navigating a pesky pandemic that won’t seem to go away (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, OMICRON), and summoning a scrap of gratitude amidst the mayhem… the holidays can be tough.

But worry not. I have six+ ways for us to stay sane! And they don’t all start with, “BRING ON THE SPIKED EGGNOG.” (Well they should, but Santa’s watching so we’ve got to employ our coping skills in moderation.)

Read on for how to stay (relatively) cool, calm, and collected this holiday season.

Handling the holidays like a sane person:

#1: Decide how you want to feel. “Not crippled by anxiety the entire month of December” won’t cut the mustard here; let’s maybe aim for something a little more life-affirming? Think about how you’d like to look back on this holiday season the day after New Year’s. Do you want it to feel peaceful? Then make choices along the way that lead you towards feeling peaceful (e.g.: meditating first thing in the morning, taking walks before dinner, not taking your sister’s bait when she goads you on). Do you want to feel inspired this holiday season? Then arrange for moments of inspiration (e.g.: visiting places that uplift you [maybe a majestic old library or that path in the woods], reading stirring words, listening to rousing music, talking to people who motivate you, not doing activities you know will un-inspire you). Bottom line: plan for your feelings. Wanting to feel connected to others, for example, won’t just happen unless you set aside time to have meaningful moments that matter. How do you want to feel through the holidays? Examples include: excited, curious, attentive, child-like, intentional, refreshed, productive, present, creative, honest, enough, playful, self-assured, utterly irresistible, almost sane. 

#2: Chase the helper’s high. If you’re going to do drugs, it’s best if they’re the kind that can’t be traced in your urine afterwards. Like volunteering! Studies have shown for decades that selfless service leads to boosts in happiness and energy, often followed by a feeling of serene calmness. One researcher even found that recalling a good deed weeks later elicited the same feel-good feelings all over again. So off you go to donate a bit of money, or volunteer a chunk of time, or help an elderly neighbor put up Christmas lights… you get the idea. Ride your helper’s high until March, at least. Where can you be a “helper,” even once this holiday season?

#3a: Summon your selfish side. The word selfish riled you up a bit there, didn’t it? Because you’re a giver, right? Because you’re a pleaser, right? But there’s a cost to putting everyone else first and it’s usually your sanity. I know I just told you to give your heart out in the point above, and this isn’t a glaring contradiction — it’s an invitation for you to be your own friend and give to yourself just as much as you would someone who lived outside your body. Block off chunks of time to do whatever pleases you: put the turkey in the oven and go A.W.O.L for a couple hours… plan to get a service at the spa while you’re stopping off for your mother-in-law’s gift certificate… make reservations for a dinner with friends or your special someone (or go solo and skip the despicable obligation of having to share your appetizer)… put up a Do Not Disturb sign on your bedroom door as you nap the afternoon away. Only you know what it’ll take to feel happy/ less frazzled by January 2nd, and the only person looking out for your mental health is you. Practice being ruthless with your Me Time and set the stage for a beautifully boundary-filled 2022.
#3b: Goldilocks your social life. “We have to get together over the holidays!!!” is a trap. It’s lovely to have friends and neighbors and cousins and colleagues who want to spend their discretionary time with you, but you can’t possibly fit everyone in AND have time to watch Maid on Netflix, can you? Say yes to the outings that truly excite you, and diplomatically defer those that don’t. It’s okay to become a social rain-checker. “Let’s wait until the holiday dust has settled and get together when we can meet with less stress” … that makes so much sense, right?
So where can you carve out time for what makes you happy? Can you practice the “let’s rain-check” words out loud, right now?

#4: Get your talking points straight about Dramatic Topics. ‘Tis the season to maybe not talk about your booster shot side effects with your anti-vax-conspiracy-theorist uncle who’s downed a few too many PBR’s. Unless you want to! But for those of us without a healthy appetite for conflict, there’s a way to agree to disagree — with grace: “Uncle Don, I respect that you have different views from mine, and I’m sure you respect me for having views that are different from yours. How about we table the whole vaccine/ politics/ religion/ money/ career choice/ yes, I’m dating a Jewish guy topic altogether? Tell me more about your trip to Yellowstone! Any pics to share?” Not every tough conversation has to be diverted, though. How about being truly neutral and getting curious? “I think we have different perceptions about _____. I’m really interested to hear your thinking on this.” Just listen, learn, and repeat the “we all get to think what we want to think” mantra in your head.
Making decisions that align with your values and beliefs is all that’s within your control… so if you don’t want to attend a family event because Uncle Don isn’t vaccinated, for example, it doesn’t need to ignite Family World War III. Tell your family (lovingly) that you look forward to a full social gathering when the pandemic isn’t so full of steam, and that for now you’re more comfortable playing it safe elsewhere. Dial down the venom by being unflappably pleasant.
Trouble feeling unflappably pleasant while hearing your mom’s condescending take on your “latest career adventure”? Take deep breaths, thank her for asking about your job, maybe set a time to talk about it later (when you’re both less distracted by All Things Holiday Events), distance yourself to get some breathing room, and then murder her in her sleep. It would go something like this: *Calm, cleansing breath* “Hey mom, thanks for thinking about my job — it shows you care. Let’s find a good time to talk through both of our perspectives, because I’m interested in your thoughts and feelings, as I’m sure you are interested in mine. Does that sound good? I’m going to go get more of Aunt Yolanda’s cheezy beans now.” (I took out the murder part because OF COURSE I was joking. *Side glancing, left then right*.)

#5: Ramp up the attitude of gratitude. We already know that gratitude — the golden child of the well-being world — can be induced (check out these adorable customizable journals to capture all the shit you’re thankful for!). Researchers have found that gratitude contemplation produces “psychophysiological entrainment observed through respiratory, cardiac, and electroencephalographic patterns becoming momentarily frequency-locked,” or in English (because WTF does entrainment even mean?), thinking about things we appreciate is very, very, very good for us. It’s great for our minds and bodies, boosts our self-esteem, and spikes our overall satisfaction with life. So how to practice this? Here are five quick ways:

  1. Juice up a holiday card to a few special people this year by expressing something specific you appreciate about them.
  2. Before bed, write down three things you’re grateful for that happened that day. Big, small — doesn’t matter.
  3. When things are feeling squirrelly-stressful, stop and find ONE THING you’re thankful for to redirect your thoughts (e.g.: “Things are exploding at work, but I’m grateful I have a great partner at home.”)
  4. Practice downward social comparison to feel temporarily better about your own situation (e.g.: “I see these homeless people and I’m so appreciative I have a roof over my head and this car to take me home.”)
  5. Read what I had to say about gratitude here.

#6. Have something to look forward to.
Psychological scientists are clear that savoring can be done before an event occurs, and it delivers a wallop of well-being. Even if you’re caught up in the biggest Shit Show, Holiday Edition of all time, wouldn’t it be nice to have a warm, glowy light on the horizon to look towards? Like a weekend getaway with friends in January? Or a cool retreat for women in business? Maybe reservations for a great date night? I know if I’m caught in the midst of a festive fiasco, I’ll be imagining the flourless molten chocolate cake The Husband will be ordering me from Molly’s Cupcakes for my birthday in early January (guys: it has dulce de leche ganache filling, with French vanilla buttercream and chocolate drizzle. Aren’t you looking forward to my birthday now, too?). One of my clients plans a 24-hour personal retreat in early January to get clear on what she wants for the year ahead. She books a beautiful hotel room and organizes her dreams, thoughts, and feelings. And she also orders room service while watching a movie. SOLD! Where can you intentionally plan something (big or small) to act as your beacon of light amidst the insanity?

BONUS #7: End it with a bang. A psychological theory called the Peak/End Rule explains one of the many ways our brains violate logic. We tend to remember events based on two key moments: one is the peak moment of emotion (good or bad), and the other has to do with the way it ended. We won’t look back on the “2021 Holiday Season” with the mind of a rational human, by averaging out all the highs and lows and in-betweens to calculate a feeling score for this most wonderful time of year. Nope. We’ll recall the most extreme high/low, and the grand finale, and use those two to sum up how the holidays went down. And here is where we orchestrate our happiness, friends: we arrange one hell of an ending. We can’t predict the highs or lows (because you don’t know if you’re getting a car wrapped in a big red bow [big high] or if you’re getting diagnosed with stage-two cancer [low, low blow]), but we can have the holidays wrap up in a pretty grand fashion. Because there are different strokes for different folks, only you know what that might mean for you — it could be an epic NYE party in full glam, a special dinner at home on your last night before going back to work, a whirlwind day trip to your favorite city for lunch (fly there first thing, eat, walk around, then fly home), a quiet day of reading and sipping apple cider, an 8-mile hike that sets a healthy tone for 2022 — whatever floats your boat. How can you plan for a pièce de résistance to cap off your holidays?

Let’s manage our expectations.

We can’t make the holidays perfectly stress-free because we can’t control what we want to control… the weather, the family we were born into, the family we married into, our genetic tendency to put on weight around our midriffs (DAMN), whether our turkey or brisket turns out perfectly moist, the Amazon delivery schedule, and a whole lot of other things. But we can take control of the six seven points above, can’t we? And more! I didn’t even mention the obvious things like…

  • Not eating to the point of discomfort for (at least four out of every five meals)
  • Not drinking to the point of oblivion (at least four out of every five nights)
  • Putting an out-of-office reminder on your email to communicate your unavailability (and not checking your messages at least four out of every five hours)
  • Booking therapy appointments through the holidays to keep your mental health in ship-shape
  • Making an expense budget for the holidays (to feel like there’s a method to the spending madness)
  • Moving your body around and stretching it (other than the 23 1/2 hours of sedentary slothery each day)
  • Taking CBD oil to sleep better through the night (my saving grace for 2020/21)
  • Many. More. Ways. To. Manage. The. Holidays.


Imagine starting 2022 without pulling your hair out? It’s possible to shift from grumbly grinch to grateful and grounded. Do one or two things from the list above, and watch the holidays turn from maddening to merry. Or at least a little less hairy.
Cheers! Now where’s that eggnog?

Jodi Wellman

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