As the holiday season approaches and 2021 draws to a close, three CSUDH faculty members discuss research-based ways to form healthy mental habits and support overall well-being during this busy time.
Associate Professor of Psychology Giacomo Bono studies how qualities of social relationships contribute to mental health, the benefits of gratitude, and the development of resilience.
This year has been extremely stressful. How can I take care of my mental health during the holiday season?
My sense is that everybody is buckling under mounting uncertainty. I think that’s a lesson from this pandemic: life always moves forward, whether you’re ready or not. You might not have the same amount of control over your circumstances as you might like.
Humans are wired to focus on the negative, but don’t just cherry-pick the bad stuff. Accepting a balanced view of your life will help your perspective. Remember that uncertainty, challenges, and stress will probably be here for a while, until we establish some new norms.
Have self-compassion and patience for yourself and others. Acknowledge your own improvements and focus on your sources of strength. Celebrate your cherished relationships, appreciate how much you’ve been through and grown, and appreciate if things could have been worse. There’s always someone near you who may have it worse. You can be a blessing to others with simple gestures and phrases of kindness, and it will help you, too.
How can I nurture positivity?
Happiness is fundamentally about connections to other people and to something bigger than yourself, but having happiness as an end goal can backfire. What’s more important, especially in today’s times, is making sure that you protect the sources of meaning in your life.
You can be grateful for life’s difficulties, too, and how much you’ve grown. Thank the people who helped you through challenges. And be thankful for people who made you feel cherished, protected, or accepted (this is a concept called “safe haven gratitude”). These are ways to be positive without being dishonest or disingenuous about your whole life.
On the lighter side, try new things. This refreshes each day with joy, awe, surprise, and curiosity. Life is beautiful. Be present and savor it through things little and big.
Any other tips for mental health during the holidays?
Like mindfulness, gratitude is a reliable way to support mental health and personal well-being. The trick is practicing it in a way that you enjoy, and remembering to do it. It’s easy to forget and get stuck putting out fires in your life, never making space to practice gratitude.
But, there are so many different strategies for practicing gratitude. There’s journaling, thank-you texts, or taking a moment to call someone you’ve been meaning to appreciate. High-five or hug them, and tell them why they matter to you. Remember, it’s in practicing that gratitude benefits your well-being.
Alcohol Use – Kevin Montes
Assistant Professor Kevin Montes researches addiction and alcohol use, including protective behavioral strategies that minimize the negative consequences of alcohol consumption.
I am trying to cut down on my drinking. What can I do to prevent overdrinking?
There are some strategies that can be employed. These include avoiding drinking games, not exceeding a set number of drinks, drinking slowly, and avoiding trying to “keep up with” or out-drink others.
What can I do to stop myself from drinking at all?
You can let friends know that you don’t want to drink. If going to a public place, don’t bring money or a credit card—this will limit your ability to purchase your own drinks. You can also try to always have a non-alcoholic drink in your hand.
How should I respond if I am being pressured to drink?
Friends and family may pressure you to drink because it normalizes their own drinking behavior. It also may be that you are perceived as being more fun when you are intoxicated. Regardless of why friends or family pressure you to drink, you are the only one who is in full control of how much (or how little) you drink.
Here are some strategies for responding to others, including if someone asks why you’re not drinking:
- “No thanks”
- “I am taking it easy tonight”
- “I am not feeling well.”
- “I’m on a diet.”
Assistant Professor of Psychology Kaylie Carbine researches how our brain and cognition play a role in our eating habits and decisions.
I want to make healthier eating choices this holiday season. What are some strategies I can use to achieve this?
One of the best things to do is to normalize your favorite holiday treats by allowing yourself to have a few of them every now and then instead of restricting them to one specific gathering.
With eating and dieting, restricting foods never goes very well. Your body will start having cravings, and then you tend to overeat those “forbidden foods or treats” when you get access to them. By normalizing those foods, you can treat them as just that—normal foods that you don’t need to overindulge in during the holidays.
To avoid overeating, one strategy is to eat normally before attending a gathering. That way, you’re not restricting and then overcompensating. It’s the same idea as not going grocery shopping while you’re hungry. If you can be comfortably full before a holiday meal or party, it will help you listen to what your body needs.
Eating slowly is also helpful, because it gives your brain time to recognize feelings of fullness. It also helps you to enjoy the whole process of eating, gathering, and socializing, because you can be more focused on what’s going on around you.
Are there any ways to “train my brain” to make better eating choices?
There’s been a lot of research around improving cognition—how we’re thinking and making decisions. The research I’ve done in my lab shows that exercise is extremely beneficial in improving your brain. It allows the organ to get the resources and nutrients it needs to perform at its highest level, so you can have improved cognition when making decisions about food.
In a study we did, people had lower levels of attention to high calorie foods and unhealthy foods after they exercised. The exercise allowed them to better control that attention and have better cognition.
The great thing is that you don’t have to go out and run a marathon. Even a 20-minute walk can benefit you.
How can I overcome feelings of guilt and anxiety around food, and be kinder to myself?
One of my favorite sayings from the Eating Disorder Center is “you can’t hate yourself into healing.” Feelings of guilt and being upset are not going to lead you into better choices or having a healthier diet. Overeating happens, especially around the holidays.
Instead of focusing on the food choices you made, focus on the fun times that you had and the joy you got by sharing the food you made or ate. While there’s always room to improve, you don’t want those feelings to overshadow the positive emotions you had about gathering with friends and family.
The best thing to do is to stay present. Each day is a new day—stay focused on what your body needs. Your body still needs energy. You don’t need to cleanse, and you don’t need to overcompensate for what you did the previous day.
To sum up: normalize foods (don’t restrict), listen to your body, and focus on the memories you made with your loved ones.