Healthy Mind

‘I’m a Psychologist, and Here Are My 5 Tips to Help You Actually Feel Rejuvenated After a Holiday Break’

Photo: Getty Images/fStop Images - Winnie Au
‘Tis the season for PTO, but even so,  relaxation may not be on your radar. Feeling rested after a holiday break might even feel like a pipe dream. Maybe you have young children, some holiday hosting on your docket, or a boss who doesn’t really let off the clock. If you’re lucky enough to have a few “real” vacation days coming up, you might already be feeling pressure about how to make the most of them, which can be a stressor all on its own.

Here’s how Elisabeth Morray, PhD, a psychologist practicing in Natick, MA, recommends making sure hose notoriously hazy days between mid-December and January 2 actually feel restorative—even when you have a lot of other things going on.

“You can take an opportunity to reexamine beliefs and really identify what you would want to do to make the holidays feel rational and rejuvenating,”—Elisabeth Morray, PsyD, a psychologist practicing in Natick, MA

5 tips to feel more rested after a holiday break

If you're already carrying a lot of mental load around the holidays, it can be hard to reframe your thinking. But Dr. Morray recommends doing just that. Here are her five tips for fitting in the self-care you deserve over the next few weeks.

1. Rethink your traditions

When it comes to choosing how to spend our time during the holiday season, Dr. Morray points out that most of us are on autopilot. We do the things that we’ve always done, and we don’t put up much resistance—even if all those things (and people) zap our energy.

“I think a lot of people realize that over the course of their lives, they've developed all kinds of rules about what has to happen during the holidays and that instead, they can take an opportunity to reexamine those beliefs and really identify what they would want to do to make the holidays feel rational and rejuvenating,” Dr. Morray says.

A better approach to the holiday season might start with asking yourself some questions. “The first step is beginning to understand why you make the choices you do around the holidays, and beginning to discriminate whether you’re making your choices out of obligation or because you find meaning or joy in how you’re spending your time and energy,” Dr. Morray explains, adding that if you want to skip even one draining gathering to take in a performance or holiday concert instead, you should give yourself full permission to do so.

2. Leave space for joy

If you’re hosting family or friends, or if you’re playing Santa for a kid or two, even the best of vacation plans might end up feeling like less of a break and more of a…headache. Parents, especially, never really get days off from obligations and responsibilities.

There’s no quick fix to make time spent hosting and ho-ho-ho-ing less exhausting. But if we’re spending time cultivating an atmosphere of joy and wonder, we might as well make sure to enjoy it ourselves. That means getting intentional and taking in what’s going on during the holiday season, rather than getting swept up going from task to task.

“Rather than feeling like you have to do all of these things that you’ve been told you should do and all these experiences that you’ve been told you should give your child, really allow yourself to be present with your child and with yourself in a way that you might not be fully able to when you’re rushing through your day-to-day work life,” Dr. Morray says.

In other words, let yourself luxuriate in that moment your child opens a longed-for gift, or simply dust off that board game you never get to play together. You don’t have to be a passive observer in everybody else’s joy; you should know that you get to have some fun, too.

And if you get to be the parent of a little one during the season of merry and bright? Spend it being the parent you wish you had or the parent you’ve always wanted to be. That doesn’t mean spending the most or being the merriest. Sometimes it just means focusing on connection and quality time.

Maybe you don’t celebrate a holiday during December, or maybe you don’t get any vacation time at all to use at the tail end of the year. Even still, this is a tip you can use. As the year winds down, reflecting on the parent or person you want to be as well as the family experience you want to have can set you up for a better year ahead.

3. Schedule time alone

If your vacation schedule is looking absolutely packed with other people, your social battery is likely to be just as low on January 2 as it was on December 20. If you’re looking to really recharge during your time off, consider scheduling time to meditate and practice mindfulness, during your vacation days. This can mean engaging in a meditation exercise, doing a visualization activity, or simply sitting in silence by yourself for a set amount of time each day.

Scheduling meditation may actually maximize the long-term benefits of having time off, long after your holiday has ended. A small observational study published in PLoS showed that people who meditated during their vacation time experienced lower levels of fatigue and higher levels of well-being ten weeks after returning to their regular work schedules.

4. Don’t waste your energy trying to maximize time

Sometimes, the pressure to make the most of a holiday break (or the holidays, in general) is enough to ruin your ability to relax. Even if you know that you can’t force your vacation to conform to your expectations, the fear of wasting your vacation can be an unwelcome and persistent holiday guest.

Things you didn’t plan for are going to come up, and chances are, some of your precious moments will be taken up by incidental errands, home maintenance, or other things that aren’t exactly thrilling. You might start to obsess over the moments you’re losing — and this fixation, Dr. Morray points out, just makes time off whizz by even faster.

Combat your FOVBO (fear of vacation being over) by recognizing it, Dr. Morray says. But choose not to be carried away or held captive by it. Let the thought come to you, and acknowledge that you’re having it. Then let it drift away like a tumbleweed made of tinsel. “The only reason that we let those thoughts bother us is because they remind us of something we care about. Instead of struggling against the uncomfortable thought, we can use it to remind ourselves that this vacation time is really precious.”

5. Focus on the future

There’s a reason so many classic holiday films loop in the idea of a disappointed or disgruntled future self. The holiday season, and the New Year, can surface anxieties over whether we’re really living our lives to their fullest potential and recognizing the special things about our lives. Believe it or not, this worry, too, can be redirected into a tool that helps us recharge.

Dr. Morray says that she recommends her clients adopt a perspective that they imagine their future selves would appreciate. This might enable them to see their own needs more clearly. When it comes to holiday rejuvenation, this approach can help you define what you really want your holiday season to be about. “Do you want to look back on yourself doing things that were exhausting and depleting you, or do you want to reflect on yourself doing things that allowed you to slow down and be more present?” Dr. Morray says.

In other words, when you approach your workstation on that first day of 2023, will you be glad that you stayed up past midnight baking those extra five dozen cookies, or will you wish that you finished the Harry and Meghan documentary while working on your night cheese? The choice is actually yours to feel rested after your holiday break.

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