While the songs say that that the holidays are the "happ-happiest season of all," your brain may disagree. According to neuroscientists, the holiday season comes with unseen stress (balancing family, friends, and work; meeting end-of-the-year deadlines; sleeping less than usual) that compromises our brain's ability to process as it normally does. Worse, this causes a downward spiral through the rest of the body, throwing hormones off balance and suppressing the immune system. However, there are steps you can take to turn the season into a happy one for your brain, too. Here some of the best four, science-backed things you can do for your brain during this time.
1. Set Boundaries Immediately.
Especially if you're home for the holidays, it can be challenging to truly go into "vacation mode." There's also a nebulous time between Christmas and New Year's where many employees officially take vacation, some companies completely shut down, and some people choose to work remotely or for shortened hours. As a leader, it may be difficult to decide when to completely shut down. But taking time to truly unplug actually makes us more productive and creative. Before doing anything else, make a commitment to yourself about when and how you will work over the holidays if you must. For example, you might set constraints like opening your laptop only once a day for one hour or moving your email app off of the home screen of your phone and turning off notifications. While this may be uncomfortable, doing so will actually give you more freedom to think and problem-solve. In fact, you may have some of your best ideas while you're technically "not working."
2. Keep Your Morning Routine.
The holidays often become a time of letting go -- being late to bed and to rise, exercising less, and eating whatever sugary sweets present themselves. Of course, you should allow yourself to enjoy these treats in moderation, but beware of taking a complete turn from your regular routine. Research has shown that we have the most willpower, energy, and motivation in the morning. According to psychologist and business-brain science expert Dr. Brynn Wineguard, a healthy morning routine--especially during the holidays--effectively clears the mind and empowers us to tackle the day. This routine might look like exercising or making a nutritious breakfast. To be effective, plan each morning the night before. If the routine will involve your family or friends, plan and agree on it together.
3. Learn Something New.
Taking a break from work doesn't mean taking a break from everything. The holidays are a great time to look back at that never-ending list of things you wish you had time to learn or do. Research has shown that attempting a new task strengthens certain connections in our brain, and further, attempting a new challenging task strengthens entire networks in the brain. By increasing neuroplasticity and even creating new connections in the brain, you make yourself more likely to come up with new and different ideas that you may not have thought of otherwise. Whether it's starting to learn a new language with an app like Duolingo or attending an exercise class that you've been meaning to try, use your down time to explore the spaces outside your comfort zone.
4. Read a Novel.
Take a break from reading email and pick up a good book. According to recent experiments, reading literary fiction improves our social cognition. It enables us to think, process, and behave better in social relationships. Reading fiction also increases our empathy, and highly important leadership quality. Importantly, this effect was especially present for quality fiction. The experiment used award-winning literature in their research. Consider one of these books from a recent Huffington Post list of the best fiction books of 2017 or peruse this list of New York Times best-sellers to pick your perfect holiday read.
At the end of the day, the holidays are a time of merrymaking. Just do your brain a favor and balance that spiked eggnog with occasional activities that spike synaptic firing.