Talking with U of M

Talking holiday mental health and wellbeing with U of M

Mary Jo Kretizer
Mary Jo Kretizer

The winter holiday season, filled with entertaining, travel and gift-buying, is a stressful time for many. More than 44 percent of people report an increase in stress during the winter holiday season. 

Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, talks about why the holidays are stressful, and ways to prevent and manage stress.

Q: What are some of the ways people struggle with mental health around the holidays? 
Dr. Kreitzer: One of the biggest sources of stress during the holidays is expectations – those that others have of us and those we impose on ourselves. People often feel pressure to bake, shop, decorate, host parties and coordinate schedules. In essence, doing too much for too many over a short period of time. Quite literally, our schedules fill up and our pocketbooks empty. 

For many, the holidays are a time of loneliness. Not everyone has family nearby. Since the pandemic began, over 10 thousand Minnesotans have died. There will be empty chairs at the table. Dealing with grief and loss during the holidays can be particularly difficult. 

Q: Heading into the holidays in 2021, we’re not past the pandemic yet. What would you advise for people this year that are both gathering with their family and those that will be distanced from their families again this year?
Dr. Kreitzer:
If you are gathering with family and friends, you’ll need to weigh the risks. If everyone is vaccinated, it is a different risk than gathering with the unvaccinated. If vaccinated people have underlying chronic health conditions and are immunocompromised, they need to take a higher level of precautions. The prevailing advice:

  • Get vaccinated, and get your booster.
  • Limit holiday gatherings indoors to people who are vaccinated.
  • In public spaces, wear a mask and socially distance.

You can still connect without gathering in-person! The safest way to connect with family and friends this year is over Zoom or FaceTime. 

Q: How can we take special care of ourselves, our family, our friends and our mental health heading into the holidays? What tips do you have for moving through the holidays with ease?
Dr. Kreitzer:
Focus on what really matters this holiday season. Are your family rituals and traditions still fun and meaningful? Ask your family and friends what is important to them, and plan around those activities. Schedules can also be a real challenge. Consider gathering in smaller groups, or on non-holiday dates. 

When considering gifting, you don’t need to over-spend. For the kids in your life, try the three gift rule: something they want, something they need, and something they’ll read. You can also gift experiences, like a trip to the museum or a yoga class. Most importantly, be sure to take care of yourself this holiday season. Exhaustion can accentuate feelings of anxiety and depression, so be sure to eat, sleep and move your body to manage stress.

Q: How can mindfulness play a role in reducing stress?
Dr. Kreitzer:
Mindfulness, or being in the present moment, can be a superpower during the holidays. Sound easy? It is actually quite difficult. We spend much of our time either contemplating the past or anticipating the future. When we are in a mindful state, we are more attentive to those around us, we listen more, anticipate needs and enjoy the moment including the sights, sounds and smells of all that is around us. 

Mindfulness can reduce stress in another way. When we gather with family and friends, there can also be tension that arises from old patterns, family dynamics, unrealistic expectations and poor communication. Mindfulness helps us be more self-aware and notice in the moment what we are feeling. When someone asks an embarrassing question or challenges something you said, instead of reacting by blurting out what is on your mind, notice how you are feeling. When we become anxious or angry, we can train ourselves to notice it in our body and you can better choose how you want to respond. Choosing a response may entail removing yourself from the situation or deferring to engage in a debate or argument. The holidays are a good time to cultivate empathy and compassion. 

Q: As the founder and director, what are some resources from the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing that can help people manage stress? 
Dr. Kreitzer:
The Bakken Center’s website Taking Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing is a great source of information on ways to improve the wellbeing of you and your family! There are also some great articles on Healthy Holiday Tips, Mindful Eating, Mindful Holiday Giving and When the Holidays Aren’t Joyful.

Mary Jo Kreitzer is the founder and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing and a professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota. Her areas of expertise include mindfulness-based stress reduction, integrative therapies and healing practices and optimal healing environments.

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