How writing can help you protect your mental health amid holiday stress

Now that the holidays are in full swing, so is the stress of the season. Studies show that nearly half of all women and one third of all men are stressed or depressed during what is supposedly the “most wonderful time of the year.” Women, in particular, are likely to bear the brunt of the burden.

While it’s easy to get lost in the holiday haze, it’s still important to make time for mindfulness. But between gift shopping, party planning, and traveling — on top of the usual obligations of work and sleep — how, exactly, do you do that? The answer may lie within that special spot where pen meets paper.

Diane Sherry Case, author of Write for Recovery, used her creative writing and psychology background to develop a series of journaling activities to help cultivate mindfulness and intentional thinking. We spoke to Case about her tips and strategies for staying mentally healthy during the holidays.

HelloGiggles (HG): Why do the holidays cause people to feel especially depressed and/or stressed?

Diane Sherry Case (DSC): We have high expectations for a picture-perfect holiday season, and a lot is also expected of us. Shopping, entertaining, wrapping, mailing, cooking — all while staying “in the holiday spirit” — doesn’t always live up to our ideals. We imagine the perfect loving celebration, but families can be stressful. Some of us may not have the family or community that would warm our hearts. Loneliness can be especially depressing during the holidays. It’s also a time when we are acutely aware of those we have lost. Everything is just heightened.

HG: What makes journaling such a powerful tool for combating depression and stress during the holiday season?

DSC: Writing is a form of therapy that is always at your fingertips. Simply expressing your feelings can help you to get to the next layer. You will gain insights and acceptance. It’s a process of uncovering, discovering and — ultimately — discarding. An exercise you can try right now is “Feel It and Heal It.” In this written body scan, you’ll discover how you summarize your depression or anxiety.

Here are the steps:

1. Begin at your toes and describe how they feel: Tingly or cold? Heavy or light? Tense or relaxed?

2. Now move up your body with awareness of your feet, calves, thighs, and hips — all the way to your face and the crown of your head.

3. Write about each part of your body, describing the sensations in detail and listening for anything that body part might want to tell you. You can allow your feet to have a voice if that idea speaks to you. Perhaps they are weary or feel abused from the high heels you’ve been wearing. Let them complain!

4. This is also a chance to talk to your body. Has your knee been bothering you? Is your eyesight worsening? Feel free to express your frustration with any physical challenges you may be having.

5. Appreciation is in order as well. Perhaps you take your nose for granted. Take time to thank it for giving you a sense of smell and the gift of breath. Take time to acknowledge the pleasure you derive from your body.

6. If you suffer from depression or anxiety, identify where that exists in your body. Does your depression live as a heaviness in the chest? Does your anxiety manifest as flutters in the belly?

You will undoubtedly notice a release as you simply become more acutely aware of what’s going on within your body.

HG: Which journaling exercises do you recommend to help turn negativity into positive thinking?

DSC: Write a list of the negative messages you tell yourself. Go over the list and restate each phrase with words a loved one or an imaginary “perfect” parent might say instead. If you believe in a higher power, what would he or she say? You can also carry a little notebook. Every time someone says something positive to you, write it down. Take note whenever someone helps you — even in the smallest way — or when you help someone else. Describe the times when you feel good about yourself, noting what you are doing right. Learn to own it.

HG: Besides journaling, what are some other ways people can decompress during the holidays?

DSC: Here’s a simple mindful mood lift — go outdoors and smile up at the sky. I also suggest we refresh our atmospheres a bit. Perhaps you can get an essential oil diffuser and fill your room with the smell of frankincense. Make the lighting in your home more pleasant, and ensure that you have some relaxing mood lighting available. Hang a new piece of art or buy some fresh sheets. Play music. Make sure your environment nourishes you and helps you renew.

HG: How can these suggestions be implemented beyond the holidays?

DSC: There are all sorts of tips for journal writing that will make it more fulfilling and enriching. One thing to incorporate daily is a gratitude list. Write a love letter to yourself from an imaginary loving parent or higher power. Here is a quick mindfulness boost that can help you become more mindful: Choose a moment in your day — it can be as small as when a clerk smiled at you, hearing a child’s laughter, or a lovely flower. Now savor that moment in writing. Use all your senses. Write about your experience and how it felt in detail. Doing this daily will help you to develop a habit of noticing the delightful moments, even during the most challenging days.

HG: If you could give someone who’s struggling this holiday season one piece of advice, what would it be?

DSC: Volunteer. There’s nothing like helping others to increase your own sense of well-being. Science shows that more dopamine — the feel good neurotransmitter — is created in the giver than in the person receiving the help.

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