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Your Road Map to a Happy Holiday on Your Own Terms

By Lindsay Gerber, PsyD

Society and the media usually depict the holiday season as a time of joy and relaxation. By mid-October, we’re bombarded with images of perfectly wrapped presents under the tree and children sipping hot cocoa by the fire. However, despite this picturesque assumption, we know the winter holiday season can be stressful and even disappointing. As an adolescent psychologist at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, I see this reality reflected in my patients’ emotional health around this time of year. They worry about midterms, college applications, how to navigate their unstructured winter break schedules, increased family time, and more.

However, this doesn’t mean the holidays are doomed. If you know the holiday season is going to be difficult for you—for whatever reason—use this holiday road map to plan a happy holiday on your own terms.

1. Take Care of Your Physical Health

Our physical health impacts our emotional health. When we don’t take care of ourselves physically, we increase our emotional vulnerability to depression and anxiety.  This holiday season, make sure you’re eating well, exercising, avoiding mood-altering drugs, and getting a good night’s sleep. It can be hard to keep up with healthy habits during these busy times, but even a brisk 10 minute walk can boost your mood!

2. Check in with Yourself

Have you ever experienced intense anger or sadness that seemed to come out of nowhere? Although it feels like a sucker punch from left field, research shows that emotions tend to gradually build over time and that we’re most likely to “snap” when we have reached our emotional capacity. By checking in with ourselves about how we are feeling, we can assess our stress level on an on-going basis and avoid maxing out our emotional capacity.

This holiday season, take time to check in with yourself about how you’re feeling. The more you get to know your feelings, the more you can control them. When checking in, label the feeling. Are you feeling happy? Mad? Sad? Worried? Did something happen that could explain the emotion? Can you use a coping skill to help you relax? Consider keeping a journal or check-in pad to keep track of your moods. If you think this may be hard to remember, set an alarm to remind you.

3. Rely on the Skills you Already Have

What do you already do to make yourself feel calm when experiencing distress? Do you listen to music? Take deep breaths? Play with a stress ball? Write down why you’re upset? Think about these skills and remind yourself that you’re already an expert at taking care of yourself.

4. Cope Ahead

Think about what might make you stressed out this holiday season and make a plan for coping with it. Enlist the help of your therapist or another trusted adult to keep you on track. Be sure to have realistic expectations for yourself. Remember, you want to support yourself, not set yourself up for failure. Below are common reasons teens feel distressed and suggestions for coping ahead:

  • If you know the pressure of midterms will stress you out, make a schedule for handling your school work and think about what skills you can use if you begin to procrastinate.
  • If you feel thrown off by the thought of unstructured free time over the holiday break, make a schedule for yourself and/or pick up a new hobby.
  • If alcohol or other drugs are a trigger for you, consider skipping out on any parties that will have drugs or alcohol. If you’re of age to drink, make a plan for how many drinks you want to consume and ask a safe and sober friend to go to the party with you.

If you can recognize potentially distressing situations in advance and identify which skills to use, you’ll be much more likely to successfully handle whatever comes your way!

5. Make an Emotional Survival Kit

An emotional survival kit is an easy-to-carry kit filled with objects to help you destress when you recognize that stress is on the rise! Kits that help you self-soothe using the six senses (Vision, Hearing, Smell, Taste, Touch, and Movement) usually work best.  Below are some examples of what you can include in YOUR emotional survival kit:

  • Vision: A photo of your pet, loved one, or calming scenery
  • Hearing: Headphones for listening to your favorite song or a small white noise machine you can carry easily
  • Smell: Aromatherapy oils or a sample of your favorite perfume/cologne
  • Taste: A mint, snack, or your favorite candy bar
  • Touch: A stress ball, fidget spinner, Play-Doh, or other tactile object
  • Movement: Crayons or markers to mindfully doodle with or a paper that prompts you to do yoga or dance for a minute

Place your items in a kit that you can bring with you wherever you go. Use this box to calm yourself down when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

6. Ask for Help

You don’t have to be in crisis to ask for help. Tell someone you trust—a caregiver, family member, friend, teacher, counselor or religious leader—about what you’re going through. Enlist them in making a plan for dealing with holiday stress. They can provide support, encouragement, and a safe space when you need it. If you have a therapist, talk with them about your holiday worries and coping skills to help you achieve your goals. Normal therapy schedules often get disrupted during the holidays. Consider making a plan with your therapist detailing your treatment schedule, therapist’s availability, and how you can access support outside of clinic hours.

If you don’t go to therapy now but think you might want to, ask about services today. If you’re 10-22 years old and live near NYC, you can make a free, confidential appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center by calling (212) 423-3000. If you’re in crisis, call 911, go to the nearest Emergency Room, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Emergency services are available 24/7. Remember: you are not alone.

7. Have a Happy Holiday

You are now equipped with everything you need to master the holidays. However you choose to spend this holiday season, know that you can make it your own! Happy holidays!

Dr. Lindsay Gerber is an Assistant Professor and Licensed Psychologist in the departments of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She earned her doctorate in Clinical and School Psychology from the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology in New York and completed post-doctoral training at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital Center, with a focus on high risk adolescents and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Dr. Gerber’s areas of interest include severe psychopathology in adolescents and young adults, co-occurring disorders (mental health and chemical dependency), trauma, and diversity issues.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

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