• Holidays aren’t just about the vacation days, they’re also about the days leading up to the vacation days… and the days following the vacation days.
  • Fortunately it’s possible to mentally prepare for your winter break and make accommodations for your post-holiday depression.
  • To ease transitions you can keep your favorite songs playing before and after the holidays, detach emotionally (but not necessarily cognitively) from work, and allow for negative feelings.
  • Your life narrative can hold space for the short-term pleasures of vacation as well as the fulfilling routines of daily life.

There seems to be this idea floating around that on your last day of work or school before the holidays you tear off your business casual wear to reveal the snowflake flannel pajamas underneath, grab an overflowing mug of eggnog, and seamlessly launch winter vacation. At least this is my idea, in my mind, that I concocted while still counting down the minutes at work.

But the truth is that the holiday mindset doesn’t have a definitive starting point and end point. We tend to anticipate the winter holidays for the entire month of December. And then when normal life resumes in January we might go through vacation withdrawal, or experience regret or heartache, or just need a few more weeks to decompress after our relaxing free time turns out to be stressful or sad or emotionally exhausting. 

So here are some tips not just for surviving the holiday season, but for entering it and exiting it like a champ. Some of the tips are about attitude. Some of the tips are about practical matters like playlists and laundry. But all of the tips are meant to protect your mind and body from the vertigo we tend to experience from the ups and downs of winter festivities.

Mentally Preparing for the Holidays

Transitions can be tough, even when they’re supposed to be happy transitions, like the ones that take place between the last day of school or work and the first day of winter vacation. So how can you prepare your mind and body for the upcoming holidays? Let’s get into it.

  • Tie up loose ends at work or school. Delegate tasks. Write an away message for your email. In short, prepare to disengage from your job both physically and emotionally to enjoy the holidays more. But there’s one big caveat to this: Research shows that people who are more intrinsically motivated by their work don’t necessarily need to detach cognitively from their job in order to feel happy and restored over the holidays. Those people can probably still engage in problem-solving or think positively about work without experiencing any ill effects. 
  • If you’re traveling for the holidays, clean out your fridge and tidy up your house before you leave. This lays the groundwork for a smoother transition back home after vacation.
  • Set the sensory stage for the holiday experience. For example, make a song playlist that you can listen to throughout the holidays: while packing, while traveling, while making gingerbread cookies, while unpacking, etc. Change your clothes and savor the feel of plaid flannel (or Little Black Dress) against your skin. Put on a festive perfume. Take off your watch. Do the little things that can signal the immersive experience to come.
  • Start a good book. You’ll appreciate returning to it throughout the holiday.
  • Predetermine the healthy boundaries that you’re going to set with family and friends over the holidays. 
  • Have realistic expectations. People tend to be happiest when they’re anticipating a holiday, but don’t idealize how it will go or you might be disappointed. And don’t succumb to dread either. Hopefully you can find a happy medium based on evidence, not fear. 
  • Make room for negative feelings, not just positive ones. They can all have a seat at the table. You aren’t alone in experiencing anxiety, depression, and/or loneliness over the holidays. 
  • If you know you’re going to miss someone over the holidays, find a way to honor them. Plan to visit their grave. Prepare a toast or a poem that you can share in their memory.
  • If you’re feeling anxious or depressed and you’re in a romantic relationship, prepare your significant other. Our communication skills tend to suffer when we’re sad or worried. Ask for forgiveness in advance if you think you might be irritable or snappish on the long drive to your in-laws’ house in Florida. Make a plan for how you’re going to deal with it. (FYI: There might be code words involved.) 
  • Prepare some eating and drinking guidelines, but don’t stress out about breaking them. You’re still in control if you plan to fail. 

How to Get the Most Out of Your Vacation

You know best how to get the most out of your vacation. What helps you relax? What fills your heart with love? Or even more clarifying: What mistakes do you make every G.D. year? Some people overschedule themselves and never say no. Some people try to recreate every annual tradition without introducing any novelty. Some people neglect their self-care and wind up more exhausted after the holiday than before. Learning from your past, try to get the most out of the winter holidays this year. This might involve the following:

  1. Visit with family in 4-hour windows. That’s usually about all that most people can tolerate. Schedule down-time or alone-time between social engagements. 
  2. Maintain your eating, exercise, and sleep routines as much as possible. Chronodisruption is real and it can mess with your mood
  3. Unplug. We all know it’s hard, but try to stay off social media and be in the moment—except for posting that one adorable photo of you with your new puppy, wrapped in a bow.
  4. Prioritize. You can’t do everything, but try to do what’s most important. 
  5. Identify someone you can vent to, cry to, or laugh with in order to keep your head up over the holidays. This person might be your significant other, your best childhood friend, or a diary. It’s easy to get disconnected from your feelings when the booze is flowing and the lights are twinkling and everyone is flitting from one conversation to another. The carols can gloss over what you’re really experiencing. Pull aside a special person if you start feeling lost or overwhelmed. 
  6. Lastly, try to end the holidays on a high note. Your mind tends to remember more recent events or interactions with the most clarity. 

Transitioning Back to Routine After the Holidays

When the holidays are over and it’s time to return to the routines of everyday life, know that it’s completely normal to feel some post-vacation depression. The more immersive the experience was, the more intense the withdrawal can be. You might feel sadness, disappointment, or regret. You might feel that regular life can’t measure up to life under the mistletoe. 

This is when you put on the playlist that you made before your vacation began. You take a transition day to do your laundry, replenish the fridge with fresh fruits and vegetables, detox from alcohol and/or sugar overload, all while remembering the best parts of your holiday with the soundtrack that carried you through. This day can act as a buffer, easing the shock to your system of the sudden contrast between #vacationlife and routine. At your last meal before returning to work or school, challenge your kids or your partner or your brother on Facetime to recount one story from the holiday. Put a date with a friend on the calendar so you can look forward to swapping holiday narratives. And above all get a good night’s sleep!

It may take a few days or weeks to embrace your routine again. But remember that vacations are known for their pleasurable peaks, whereas daily experience is known for building meaning, fulfilling our sense of purpose, and working toward our long-term goals. Both this latter type of eudaimonic happiness and the hedonism we sometimes enjoy on the holidays can complement each other and contribute to shaping our lives.