By Robert Sheehan

Guest Columnist

While greeting cards and commercials alike encourage us to have an abundance of cheer and joy this time of year, the reality is the holiday season often brings with it considerable amounts of stress that can take a toll on mental and physical health.

Whether financial constraints have you worried about higher-than-normal expenses, or the thought of interacting with certain relatives causes you to lose sleep, you’re not alone in feeling less than cheerful this time of year.

According to the American Psychological Association, people are more likely to experience an increase in stress rather than a decrease during the holiday season. The Association also found that women are more likely to feel an increase in stress and have a harder time than men relaxing over the holidays.

Remember to take care of yourself first and foremost this season; it will expand your capacity for giving to others. Some simple ways to keep your mental health on track include:

  •  Get outside. While the colder temperatures make it tempting to curl up under a blanket and stay indoors, a long walk in the cool winter air (with appropriate layers) will expose you to the Vitamin D you’ve been missing and get your endorphins running.
  • Avoid over-doing it. At holiday parties, it’s easy to get carried away with eggnog and other holiday-themed alcoholic beverages. Because alcohol is a known depressant, too much of it can cause unintended side effects and harm your mental health.
  • Connect with others. The thought of one get-together after another can be overwhelming, but socializing is important for a healthy outlook. Surround yourself with those who make you happy, rather than retreating from those who don’t.
  • Set a budget. Without a clear sense of the expenses that lay ahead this holiday season, many people get in over their heads with added costs. Establish an amount to spend on gifts, decorations and holiday meals, and get creative with do-it-yourself ideas to supplement along the way.

It’s perfectly healthy to experience a variety of emotions during the holiday season. Most families don’t look like a Norman Rockwell painting, exchanging toothy smiles over a holiday feast. Put your health first and plan for the stress that is bound to come along, and you will be well-equipped with the mental health tools needed to make the most of the holiday season.

Robert Sheehan is chief executive officer of the Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards.