Christmas can be a difficult time to stay emotionally well. Although advertised as the happiest time of the year, for many, Christmas brings with it the pain of regret, isolation, and loneliness. It reminds them of everything that is missing in their life. For those with a full life, Christmas can be stressful and anxiety-producing, with the demands of shopping, buying presents, and party planning. I find my patients suffer more from depression in December than any other month of the year.

There are ways to stay well. Vinnie Torturich, personal fitness trainer, interviewed me on his podcast recently (episode to be released late December), where we discussed how Americans are becoming sick—physically and emotionally. He recorded a brilliant video for Prager U in November titled America is Fat, but You Don’t Have to Be, where he gave three specific pieces of advice to Americans who want to preserve or return to a healthy and normal weight. I’ve recommended his video to many of my patients, as his advice closely matches mine.

Physical and emotional health are tied one to the other. To be truly healthy, you must work on both. Having worked with patients for nearly 20 years, I am certain that the body and the mind move in tandem—for better or worse. In the same way, talk therapy works together with action to effect concrete changes in your life. You can develop tremendous insight through therapy, but if you don’t apply what you have learned into behaving differently outside the consulting room, no meaningful change will occur. On the other hand, simply acting without careful thought or consideration of your feelings will usually produce harm to yourself and others. The internal work must align with the external.

An excellent place to start in achieving good emotional health is practicing somatic meditation. This involves ten to fifteen minutes of daily, focused attention on your body, moving that attention from your feet to you head and then back to your feet again, usually done while standing still and with eyes closed. The goal is to increase awareness of sensations in your body while simultaneously allowing intrusive thoughts to pass through your mind without becoming preoccupied by them. Particularly when done in the morning, this practice helps improve mental organization, decrease anxiety, and reduce emotional turbulence. Over time, it will also improve your ability to connect with others emotionally by removing internal noise that gets in the way of developing intimacy. When starting out, it's best to use an audio guide. There are many free recordings available online.

In my book Freedom From Fear, I describe several other steps important to achieve good mental health, such as seeking out like-minded people, embracing truth and rejecting fear, and shutting off unhelpful stimuli like mass media. Certainly, you can always choose to work with a therapist to sort out significant or entrenched blocks to emotional wellness; however, unless you also take action on your own, the benefit of therapy will remain limited.

It's easy this time of year to ignore both physical and mental wellness. Most Americans wait until New Year to begin eating better and exercise regularly. Starting now to improve the condition of the body and mind will make the holidays easier and more enjoyable. Why wait?

Merry Christmas!

Mark McDonald, M.D.
Psychiatrist and author of United States of Fear: How America Fell Victim to a Mass Delusional Psychosis and Freedom From Fear: A 12 Step Guide to Personal and National Recovery