Ah, the holiday season! Full of snow, joy, coziness, pine trees, cider simmering on the range and fluffy sweaters. Well, in an ideal world maybe. For me, the holidays are also synonymous with a feeling of burn-out. As a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) the most wonderful time of the year is also my most stressed time of year. I don’t consider myself an anxious person by any means (I think all of my friends and family would describe me as “chill” with a sprinkle of “sunshine-y”). And there’s plenty that I love about the holidays, to be sure! But for me the dwindling sunlight combined with all of the social pressures and my busiest blogging season leaves me feeling fatigued by January 1.
If you find yourself overwhelmed, edgy and frantic during the normal whirr of the Winter holidays you’re certainly not alone. Depending on the degree of your experience, it’s possible that you fall on the sensitive spectrum. Highly Sensitive People (HSP) are characterized by sensitivity to sensory stimuli, deeper cognitive processing and high emotional reactivity. HSP are often extra sensitive to all manner of sensory stimuli: color, light, texture, taste, scent, hot/cold, sound, social interaction, sleep disturbance, inflammatory foods and violent entertainment. Around 20-30% of the population is considered Highly Sensitive. Which means being a HSP is normal, although less common. While the traits attributed to HSP can be a gift, they can also lead to feelings of being easily overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or otherwise unwell. You can learn more about the HSP designation here. And check out my prequel to this post, 43 Self Care Practices for the Highly Sensitive Person.
Now, last I checked the holidays are a glitter-bomb of triggers for sensitive folks like myself.
There’s the whirr of travel and holiday events; the consumerist take-over of our culture combined with the pressure to find perfect gifts; the constant interaction with family (which is not fun for everyone); the bright holiday lights and enormous sparkling trees crowded with ornaments; and the inevitable strain of absorbing too much refined sugar, caffeine and alcohol.
Self-care is floated around a lot lately as a sort of antidote to the stresses of modern life. But, as Brianna Wiest of Thought Catalog says: “self-care is not all salt baths and chocolate cake.”
Self care is choosing to thrive, not just survive. It’s choosing to reject the things that hurt us in lieu of things that support us — whether our lives are mildly or extremely stressful, whether we’re sort of sensitive or highly sensitive.
The self-care practices I’ve outlined today are great for everyone… regardless of if you identify with being a HSP.
I’ve broken up my tips into part 1 and part 2 because there are truly too many to include in one post. This post is focused on Food, Yoga/Body-care and Sleep. Part 2 will include Mental Health, Aesthetics/Environment and Travel.
Cheers to a happier, healthier, more vibrant holiday season!
You can find most of my product recommendations in this post on my Amazon idea list here.* These are items I use, own and have gifted to myself over the years. Plus a few items that are on my wishlist!
With all of the travel and indulgence and fun of the holidays, it’s easy to get stiff and achey. Turmeric is a great friend to humanity. I take it for everything from headaches to muscle recovery to joint relief. And the anti-inflammatory nature of turmeric makes it an effective pain reliever. Make sure you get a supplement that contains black pepper, as it’s important to make turmeric effective.
Make friends with adaptogens.
I’m the first to tell you I’m not an expert when it comes to herbalism, but I know what has been helpful for my sensitive self. I sip tulsi basil for everyday wellness. I take functional mushrooms like reishi, lions mane and cordyceps to combat cancers, balance hormones and improve muscle recovery (among other things). I like ashwagandha and maca for bringing my adrenals and hormones into homeostasis. If you have a favorite adaptogen, please share in the comments what you use and your favorite way to use it! Inquiring minds want to know. Learn more about adaptogens here.
Drink ginger tea before meals.
This is great for absolutely everyone, but particularly if you have sluggish digestion or low appetite. I like to sip it to prep my digestion before holiday meals. It lights your digestive fire to make it easier to digest your food properly.
Put your fork down between bites. Breath. Converse. Enjoy the moment. Savor all of the different flavors and textures. This process helps your body to prepare for proper digestion so that your food doesn’t just sit in your gut like a mish-mashed lump. See how slowly you can eat! You might even compete with your brothers. Be a sneaky good influence!
Befriend fennel seeds.
Fennel is prized for it’s ability to settle the stomach, cool the digestive fire and relieve gas after heavy meals. You can either chew on the whole seeds or make a simple tea by steeping the seeds in hot water.
If you hate licorice flavor, use cardamom instead.
Black cardamom seed has similar effects to fennel. It’s very cooling for the digestive system and helps to relieve gas. You can chew on whole cardamom pods or seeds (which also freshens breath!). Or steep in tea.
Sip nourishing broths.
If you’re fighting off any sort of seasonal sickness this is essential! Here’s my recipe for functional mushroom miso broth (full of garlic and ginger, with a dash of cayenne). I sip it on its own or make it into soup with millet ramen, shiitakes and whatever greens I have on hand. If you’re not vegetarian, bone broths are also a great option (here’s why).
Drink hot chocolate (clearly the most important tip on this list!).
Chocolate is full of antioxidants and brain-boosting flavonoids. It also contains theobromine which acts as a stimulant while simultaneously reducing blood pressure. It’s literally opening your heart while boosting cognitive function. Yes please! Sip real hot chocolate made with plant based ingredients for the most benefit. Try my maple-sweetened maca hot chocolate made with whole chopped chocolate. Or my date-sweetened pumpkin hawaij cocoa made with cocoa powder.
Switch out butter with ghee.
If you’re going to be making any butter-laden dishes for the holidays, consider using clarified butter (aka ghee) in your dishes instead of traditional butter. Ghee is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s ideal for high heat cooking. And it’s free of casein and lactose, both of which are stressors on the gut (and common allergens). It tastes amazing and you won’t feel like you’re choosing health over indulgence. Note: ghee is an oil, so it’s not a perfect substitute for butter in baked goods.
Keep refined sugar consumption to a minumum.
It’s ok to have one of your aunt Gene’s sugar cookies, but 10? Yikes! Make your own refined sugar free treats to bring to holiday gatherings — sweetened with dates, coconut sugar, maple syrup, brown rice syrup or stevia. Empower yourself by offering your own alternative to those powdered sugar glazed snowflakes and snowmen! If you don’t have time to do the homemade thing, Trader Joe’s snickerdoodle cookies are refined sugar free and holiday appropriate; this cookie mix is both grain free and refined sugar free; and Lily’s chocolate is amazing and stevia sweetened.
Avoid excessive caffeine.
Caffeine drains the adrenal glands which are already taxed thanks to seasonal stressors. Replace your afternoon coffee with herbal coffee, or consider switching to matcha or black tea. If you’re really stressed maybe even remove caffeine entirely — but up your intake of maca and ashwagandha, both of which help to bring your adrenals into homeostasis (in turn alleviating caffeine withdrawal).
Skip the cold punch and go for warm milky beverages.
In ayurveda it’s recommended to sip warm drinks to sooth the system, especially in the cold months. Sipping warm tonics is thought to help balance digestive stress and sooth nervousness. Personally, I find sipping a warm milky herbal tea beverage helps fight some seasonal depression and calms my overly sensitive gut and skin. (Thanks Sasha for the tip!) Try my Cozy Tahini Reishi Herbal Coffee Latte, 1 Minute Matcha Latte, Coconut Lavender London Fog Latte or Tahini Chai.
Find a nutrient-dense green winter salad that you love.
It’s really easy to get deficient in essential minerals during the cold season. Leafy greens (including seaweed) are the key to keeping our bodies stocked up with magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron. A zesty dark-leafy-green salad dressed with lots of acid (aka lemon or lime juice, apple cider vinegar, balsamic, etc.) is exactly what we all need to cut through the monotony of cozy dishes. Here are a few of my favorites: Golden Fennel Kale Chop, Pumpkin Buckwheat Kale Salad, Vegan BLT Salad with Coconut Bacon Bits, Kale Lentil Pasta Salad with Maple Pecans, Charred Broccoli and Red Onion Salad,
Don’t forget your vitamin D and B-complex!
If you’ve been feeling sad, sluggish, ill-at-ease or on-edge lately, you might be deficient in either one of these essential vitamins (don’t feel bad, most of us are deficient).
~Yoga + Bodycare~
Practice deep belly breathing.
Do this for a minute at a time, until you can build up to 5 minutes at a time. This helps to combat mental stress, relax the body, improve digestion. Here’s a video tutorial.
Do child’s pose.
If you know nothing about yoga you can still do this pose and get a gentle stretch with a whole lot of relaxation! I stay in this for a minute then walk my hands to the right and the left for a side body stretch. If your hips or inner thigh are too tight for childs pose, lay on your back and hug your knees to your chest for about a minute, rocking on your low back to massage the sacrum.
Practice restorative or yin yoga.
If you can get yourself to a class, definitely do! But you can also do a restorative or yin home yoga practice with this video (it’s about an hour long, but you could do half of it and get benefit). You don’t need fancy props. A body pillow or stacked pillows can replace a bolster. A long belt or knotted scarf can replace a strap. Books can replace blocks. You could even practice on a towel instead of a mat! You don’t need fancy stuff to do yoga.
Take warm baths with magnesium salts.
Baths are lovely generally, but magnesium salt baths are particularly great. Magnesium has a natural sedative quality, both when taken internally and applied externally. Floating in a warm bath allows the pores to open and absorb the magnesium directly, which I find relaxes my muscles and gets me ready for dreamland like nothing else.
Practice sun salutations in between the chaos.
This is a foundational sequence that warms and stretches the body, without being too complicated. On days where I’m prepping holiday meals I like to take a yoga break half-way through and do about 5 sun salutations in a row to refresh myself. Here’s a video tutorial.
Keep an essential oil roller around for stress.
I can usually find these at hippie grocery stores or Whole Foods. They’re basically a carrier oil (sesame, almond, grapeseed or coconut oil) with lovely essential oils added in. So simple! In fact, you can make one at home if you want. Roll onto temples, back of the neck and pulse points. Keep it in your purse for on-the-go chillness.
Give yourself (and grandma) an herbal facial.
I love Lily Diamond’s food and herb based body care DIY’s. They’re affordable and so easy! Give yourself (and your extended family) a pomegranate honey toning mask. Thank me (and Lily) later.
Fall in love with hydrosols!
Hydrosols are botanical mists that act as gentle toners for different skin needs. I use them all year, but they make great extra support during Winter months. I love my white rose hydrosol, which I use to help balance my dry skin that’s prone to redness. I’m personally planning on investing in chamomile, douglas fir, spearmint and lavender (all very soothing for sensitive skin). Not gonna lie, I just love spritzing lovely smells all over myself. They can be a lovely addition to meditation practice as well. I get mine from Mountain Rose Herbs.
Get into the oil cleansing method (for your face).
I started this practice over a year ago, transitioning away from using soaps and cleansers on my face. My favorite thing about it is the (very important) facial massage that you do with your fingertips for a few minutes every night. I usually also massage my neck as part of this. It moves the lymph and helps break through tight fascia. The result is healthier, more elastic skin. And pain relief for any of us out there that struggle with neck / jaw pain. Here’s the method I use. I follow up my practice by splashing my face with cold water, moisturizing with carrot oil and toning with a rose hydrosol. Here are most of the products I use.
Keep a consistent movement practice.
Trust me, I know how hard it is to keep up with exercise during the holidays. But you’re going to feel so much better (physically and mentally) after an hour of running, dancing, swimming, lifting, hiking or whatever your preferred movement method is. Try to get it in at least three days a week, even if that means simply stretching in your living room while watching a movie. Rope your friends and family into your annoying desire for holistic health at freezing temperatures… it’s fun! Really though, it helps to have a workout buddy during the season of temptation. Why not plan to meet up and take a new fitness class the next time you want to hang with a friend?
Yogic inversions are great for reducing stress. They calm the nervous system and cardiovascular system. They get lymph flowing. And they relieve tension in the legs and feet. You might practice shoulder stand (sarvangasana) for 1-5 minutes (here’s a video tutorial). As someone with neck / jaw problems, I avoid postures that put pressure on my head and neck because they give me splitting headaches (so fair warning, my tight-necked friends!). As an alternative I’ll practice shoulder stand with extra props for neck support. Or I’ll take a simple legs-up-the-wall practice with a strap around my calves for 5 minutes.
Do self-massage with rubber therapy balls.
This is one of the best ways to effectively massage yourself at home! I started doing this about 6 months ago and it’s made a huge difference for my neck pain. All you need as a rubber lacrosse ball or rubber therapy balls (which are sometimes slightly softer) and some direction. Here’s a video tutorial for low body, back and shoulders (the first half of this video focuses on the therapy ball). You could also use tennis balls if you need a softer option.
Practice these yoga flows.
A sequence for low back release. A few of my favorite video flows from Yoga with Adriene: Yoga for Self Love, Compassion Yoga, Yoga for a Broken Heart / Unconditional Love (gentle practice). A video flow for shoulders and neck from YogaTX.
Update your pillow.
Winter is the season I need sleep the most. And a fresh pillow helps to keep the skin on your face healthy, reduces allergies and helps you to sleep deeply. If you have any neck or jaw issues, avoid hard foam pillows and seek out soft down pillows. I don’t know about you, but a new pillow is top on my list of self-care buys for Winter.
Get a sleep mask.
Sleep masks help you to sleep longer and deeper. I know my sleep has changed for the better since I started using one about a year ago. Get silk or Organic cotton if possible.
Refresh your comforter.
Since we’re getting into cozy cuddly season, now’s a good time to replace old comforters and duvet covers with fresh ones in calming colors. You could go simple and affordable with a natural cotton. Or maybe splurge on something fancier like pure linen. I find gray, soft pink, soft blue, white and cream are the most soothing. Avoid patterns and bright colors for the most calming effect.
Banish itchy fabrics.
Many highly sensitive folks have issues with textures: textures of foods, fabrics, wallpaper…. If you have itchy throw blankets spend some time replacing them with softer ones. When your fabrics are smooth and supple it really does make a world of difference for your comfort level. This goes for those itchy winter sweaters too!
Do a foot soak before bed.
I like to use dead sea salt and a few drops of thieves oil, which is a warming blend of clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus and rosemary essential oils.
Make your bedroom a sanctuary.
Reassess what you want surrounding you as you go to sleep and wake up. Eliminate busy patterns and clutter. Add soft throw blankets in neutral colors to your bed. Incorporate 1-2 low-maintenance plants. Add a plush floor rug. String soft led lights over windows. Replace traditional light bulbs with soft-glow LED bulbs. Add a salt lamp to your space. Set out beeswax or soy candles for romantic lighting when needed. Increase light in small spaces by decorating with mirrors. Keep enough undecorated negative space to create a sense of openness.
Remove all electronics from the bedroom.
Blue light is proven to disrupt circadian rhythms. Keep your phone and computer charging out of the bedroom to improve your natural sleep cycle. If you use your phone as an alarm, get an analog alarm clock for your bedside.
Sip gentle sedative teas.
I love sleepy time teas! My favorite sedative herbs are passionflower, lavender, chamomile, skullcap and kava kava. I avoid valerian, personally, as it is too strong of a sedative for me. Here are my favorite sleepy tea blends: Mountain Rose Herbs Peace Tea with chamomile, rose, passionflower and lavender; Mountain Rose Herbs Dream Tea with mugwort, chamomile, damiana and spearmint; and Yogi’s Honey Lavender Stress Relief and Soothing Caramel Bedtime.
You can find most of the products I’ve recommended in this post here on my Amazon idea list!* Plus loads of products on my personal self-care wish list.
*I may receive some affiliate compensation for purchases made through my list, although I chose the products purely based on what I use and like. Only certain items qualify for affiliate compensation, and I can’t tell which ones they are.
That’s it for now. Leave a comment telling me your favorite self care practice! And look out for Part 2 coming soon!
xo — Renee