3 Ways Holiday Traditions Can Improve Mental Health

Decorating for the holidays and engaging in traditions can be fun, but did you know it’s actually good for your health?

Research shows that connecting with other people and performing rituals and traditions can be hugely beneficial for your mental health,” says UNC Health clinical psychologist Crystal Schiller, PhD. “The key is to think about what brings you the most joy and meaning during the holiday season and prioritize those things.”

So put your favorite holiday music on and light a festive candle as you read more on how to make the most of your holiday traditions—and your health! (And remember these points if anyone gives you flak for decorating early.)

1. Holiday traditions help ground us.

Whether we realize it or not, traditions are an important part of our social identity that we often take for granted. They can contribute to how our values were shaped and how we view ourselves.

“A tradition can act as a glue for our selves,” says UNC Health psychiatrist Nadia Charguia, MD. “Engaging in a family tradition can help us center and remember what truly matters.”

Reflecting on who you are and where you came from can spark feelings of nostalgia.

“Traditions can bring up positive emotions associated with memories from childhood, past times that were meaningful or loved ones who are no longer with us,” Dr. Schiller says.

It’s important to note that the holidays are not always happy for everyone, and sometimes the memories they can bring to mind are not positive. But the good news is that you can always start new traditions.

“Maybe you find that some of your past experiences or traditions are not relevant anymore, so you could look to start new ones or weave in your own interpretations,” Dr. Charguia says. “Think about what brings you joy and a sense of self-worth and how you could pass that down to others.”

If starting new rituals feels overwhelming, Dr. Schiller recommends starting by identifying people that you want to be around during the holidays. Then learn about their traditions and think about which ones you might want to adopt as your own as you start making new memories.

2. Performing rituals gives us a sense of purpose.

While so much of what happens in life is outside of our control, holiday decorating, baking and gathering can give us a sense of purpose, value and safety. Rituals can give us something positive to focus on if we need a healthy distraction from daily life.

“Traditions can be a true north,” Dr. Charguia says. “They are something that we can routinely and reliably lean on if we need to. When we lean into things that are familiar and reliable, anxiety, worry and stress tend to melt away.”

There are also traditions that aren’t as fun, such as cleaning the house before guests arrive or preparing a large meal, that benefit your mental health.

“Some holiday activities don’t make you feel good while you are doing them but give you a sense of pride after having them done,” Dr. Schiller says. “As a culture, we often think ‘whew, that’s done’ and move on without taking time to celebrate the win. However, reflecting on those tasks that you’ve mastered makes you feel good and contributes to overall well-being.”

3. Holiday traditions encourage connection and community.

Humans are naturally social and crave connection, so gatherings and traditions that bring family and friends together can inspire a sense of rejuvenation.

“Humans have survived for a long time in tribes and there are rituals associated with how those work,” Dr. Schiller says. “Connecting with loved ones sparks that chemical reaction in the brain that has positive effects on mood and has shown to be important for mental health.”

However, it’s important to not get overwhelmed.

“Don’t begrudgingly engage in your traditions just because it’s something you’ve always done,” Dr. Schiller says. “Try to scale back to the things that bring you the most joy.”

Dr. Schiller recommends staying open to forming new traditions. Blending new and old traditions takes planning and communication but can bring added connection and joy, she says.

“My son told me that he was a little stressed about people coming into town for Thanksgiving,” Dr. Schiller says. “So I asked him what new tradition he would like to start. He really likes games, so we decided to have one of his favorite meals and play a card game and he’s really looking forward to that.”

Feeling overwhelmed by stress? Talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.