I know how Times Square feels—after the crowds have dispersed in the early hours of New Year’s Day leaving behind remnants of their revelry. After the holiday rush, I often feel like this—exhilarated but frazzled, and in need of a good cleaning. I thought this feeling was inevitable. For years, I faced the holiday travel season as if it were finals week and I was an undergrad who had slacked off all semester. During final exam week, college students don’t care about petty things such as regular meals, bedtimes, and hygiene. Finals week is all about pushing yourself to the limit, fueled by caffeine and sugar. You get through it by telling yourself, It’s only a week or so. I can power through. When it’s over, you sleep for days and generally feel terrible.
I’m an introvert—and as much as I like people and holidays—the only way I knew to approach the holiday travel season was with an undergrad mentality. My family and in-laws live in opposite directions, in separate states, so we’ve made multi-day trips for every holiday in the past decade. Each time, I pack my suitcase and leave my routine behind, telling myself: It’s only a week or so. Of course we’ll arrive early and stay late. Of course I’ll stay up as late our host even if it’s way past my usual bedtime. Of course I won’t take any time to myself. Of course I’ll snack endlessly on whatever is near my hands. And of course, I’ll stop all forms of exercise. This is a “vacation” after all. The result was that I’d return home from these holiday visits exhausted, ornery, and people-weary with no clean pants for the next day. It’d take me a week of routine (including hours of solitude and a few loads of laundry) and the following weekend at home to recover.
This past Thanksgiving, I had an epiphany: I don’t want to feel like this anymore. My anticipation of a “holiday hangover” had started to dampen my enthusiasm for the holidays. Staying home is an option, but not one we’re likely to choose. We do like our families and the time we spend with them. But there had to be a healthier way to approach it. I began to consider the regular practices that contribute to my physical and mental wellness in everyday life. I realized that most of these things are put on hold when I’m away from home. Yet, practicing good self-care gives me more mental and emotional energy, something I especially need when I’m a guest in someone’s home with a full schedule of social activities. The holidays shouldn’t be a hiatus from self-care, in fact, when you’re out of your regular routine, you need it more than ever. (Well, at least introverts like me tend to.) I’ve come up with a list of things that make holiday travel and endless extroversion easier on me. I’m always relieved to return home after being away, but these things (as I discovered during Thanksgiving weekend) help improve my experience and leave me feeling better afterward.
1. Stay hydrated. It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s taken me years to notice the connection between drinking water and the way it makes me feel. Dehydration makes me feel jittery. Ironically, it can also make a person feel tired and sluggish. When I’m away from home, I tend to forgot about staying hydrated. Packing my water bottle on trips helps keep me accountable. If anecdotal evidence isn’t enough for you, read this article about dehydration and mood.
2. Limit sugar intake. I love sweets and desserts. I eat a steady amount of them. During the holidays—like a lot of people—I go overboard. Strawberry eggnog shakes and chocolate gingersnaps come only once a year, right? Unfortunately, I’ve learned that all this extra sugar makes me feel terrible afterwards. In fact, there’s significant evidence pointing to sugar’s negative effects on mental health. Read about it here. I still eat sweets but I try to not go overboard.
3. Be active. I exercise 3-4 times a week. In the past, I’d skip my workouts while I was away from home because I’d tell myself I needed a break. Yet, exercise contributes a lot to my overall well-being. (And it gives me a good excuse for solitude or one-on-one time with a relative.) Over the Thanksgiving break, I attended a yoga class with my sister-in-law and went running twice (once was an organized 5K and the other time was completely alone). I noticed a significant difference afterward. Physical exercise (and the break from constant socializing) gave me more energy.
4. Go to bed. This can be tricky depending on your hosts during the holidays. You may stay with a night owl who’s still chatty and offering you drinks and snacks at midnight. Or you may stay with someone who retires after dinner. Either way, I’ve found it’s best to stick to my regular sleeping schedule as much as possible.
5. Take a break. I have an introverted friend who takes regular naps during family holidays. She is one of two introverts in her immediate family so their holidays are packed with activity and togetherness. Introverts can enjoy activity and togetherness as much as the next person (I do anyway) but we definitely need downtime and solitude breaks. During the afternoon lull, my friend heads to a guest room and closes the door. Sometimes she actually sleeps, and at other times she simply reads for a while. She’s discovered that she’s a happier, more patient person because of these self-imposed breaks. For further encouragement, read this post about solitude.
6. Say no sometimes. You don’t have to say yes to every group activity. But also be prepared for possible guilt trips. Back to my fellow introvert friend. Occasionally, she has a family member accuse her of being “antisocial” when she excuses herself for alone time. In reality, my friend spends a lot of time with her family. But for some people, the holidays are about spending every single minute together and they don’t understand when other people don’t share their view. For someone like my friend (and frankly, me), that’s a recipe for exhaustion and potential conflict.
7. Give yourself margin. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent holidays with family and stay as long as humanly possible. I’d arrive home late Sunday night, crash, and then wake early for work the next morning. It felt like a challenge, as if I was proving that I was superhuman. I’m not. Allow yourself downtime at home. At least enough time to do a load of laundry or eat a regular meal.