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3 Ways to Run Off Holiday Stress (And Preserve Your Mental Health)

Two runners in warm clothes jog down a snowy road

If you’ve ever had to take a break from running, you know there’s a thing called “runner’s blues.” After an injury or big race, sitting on the sidelines can cause runners to feel depressed. And for those who run to alleviate depressive symptoms, the symptoms can return in full force when you take time off. Of course this makes sense, because regular exercise is known to improve mood and reduce depression and anxiety.

The holidays are a time for overcommitment for many of us. From holiday parties to gift shopping and Christmas pageants, it seems like the whole month of December is crammed full of activity. For people without supportive family structures or with a history of mood disorder, the holidays can be especially overwhelming and triggering. Combine an already emotional holiday season with a busy schedule that limits your ability to run, and you’ve created a perfect storm for mood changes during the holidays.

So, how can you avoid feeling depressed or anxious over the holidays? For many people, avoiding these feelings entirely is next to impossible. But, you can help minimize the damage the holiday season can take on your mood.

3 Ways to Reduce Stress Over the Holidays

If you’ve been diagnosed with mental illness (currently or previously), please know that this advice is to be used in conjunction with that of your mental health care provider. Take care of yourself this holiday season (and take your mental health meds if you need to).

A runner stands in the snow

Treat Your Schedule Like Your Life Depends on It

If you run at 5 p.m. every day, do not give up that run for even one day. Not if you need to decorate the Christmas tree, pick up stocking stuffers or get snacks for your kid’s holiday party. Treat your run as though it is the most important thing in your life.

The recommended amount of daily exercise for mood-boosting benefits is 30 minutes per day, five days a week. It can be so tempting to skip a day when you need to get things done, but skipping one day means you’re more likely to skip the next, and pretty soon you can find yourself saying, “Wow, I haven’t run in two weeks.” That will be two whole weeks of mood-boosting endorphins you’ve missed out on.

Take Your Run Outside

It’s common (and totally understandable) to turn to the treadmill during winter months when the cold, soupy weather outside is not enticing.

Treadmill running has its pros. There’s blasting music as loud as you want without worrying about not being able to hear traffic or other pedestrians on the sidewalk. There’s being able to squeeze in a tightly controlled workout in a short amount of time. Treadmills have their place, but when you’re running for mental health, it’s best to get outside if at all possible.

That means if there’s snow on the ground, if it’s raining lightly and even if it’s so cold you can hardly feel your face. “But, why?” you’re asking. Running is good for your mental health, no matter how you do it. Running outside, however, can give you an even bigger brain boost. Some studies suggest running in nature might have stronger benefits on blood pressure, self-esteem and mood than running indoors. And if it’s sunny out, the vitamin D you’ll get from the sun has mood boosting properties, too.

Run as a Coping Tool

Although they’re designed to bring us together, the holidays leave many people feeling worse after they’re over. Family disputes or unsatisfying relationships can leave you hurting or confused. An abundance of junk food filled with butter and sugar can leave you feeling sluggish and frustrated with weight gain. Coping during the holidays can be hard.

Many people turn to alcohol during the holidays. (Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Americans reportedly drink twice what they normally do.) Others cope with holiday stress by binge eating. These coping mechanisms temporarily relieve whatever pain is aching, but can wreak havoc and your health and your relationships. When you feel the urge to drink, eat or use another unhealthy coping tool, lace up your sneakers and just start running.

If you think you’ll be tempted to drink or eat more than you should over the holidays, take a running bag with you wherever you go. If you’re having a moment during which you just cannot deal, excuse yourself from the situation and run for 30 minutes. Keep your workout clothes, sports bra, sneakers and a hair band with you at all times so you can use running as a coping tool whenever you need to.

Ask For Help If You Need It

Even running can’t fix everything (although most runners believe it can fix almost anything). Some times, people need help fixing problems, especially when it comes to mental health. It’s possible you’re sticking to your routine, running outside and coping with things the best way you know how, but you still feel yourself sliding. If you’re struggling, reach out to a friend, an old therapist or a mental health helpline. The holidays are a hard time for many people, but there are people and services who can help you get through it.

If you need to talk to someone now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

By Dr. Sarah Toler. Sarah Toler, CNM, DNP is a Certified Nurse Midwife and Doctor of Nursing Practice. As a midwife, Sarah knows it’s an honor to help women thrive throughout life’s greatest journeys. Sarah works with women throughout pregnancy and birth, but her real passion is the postpartum period.

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