If you have even a passing interest in artificial intelligence, you’ve probably seen the excitement (and controversy) generated by OpenAI’s new ChatGPT, opened recently for public experimentation as a test release. As an avid sci-fi reader since childhood, I’ve been curious about artificial intelligence for many years. ChatGPT is being lauded as a leap forward in AI technology, specializing in conversation and dialogue. Want it to write you a lesson plan in the style of a pirate? A hymn about the majestic duck? Or a tear-jerker of a letter to your kid explaining that Santa isn’t real? It can do it, often with what appears to be style, a sense of humor, and sometimes even emotional intelligence.

Which lead me to wonder: Can it give useful mental health advice? I was curious about how it would do with one of the common mental health concerns we hear about this time of year — How can we practice good self-care during the notoriously busy and stressful holiday season?

ChatGPT on Holiday Self-Care

I asked ChatGPT to “explain how someone can practice good self-care during the holiday season, in the style of a friendly, knowledgeable therapist.” It responded with a short, blog-post style blurb with five actionable tips. I’ll share its response here, with my comments after each one.

ChatGPT: Self-care is the practice of taking care of oneself in order to maintain physical, mental, and emotional well-being. During the holiday season, it can be easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of social events and obligations, which can lead to feelings of stress and overwhelm. Here are a few tips to help someone practice good self-care during the holiday season:

Remember to Set Boundaries

ChatGPT: 1. Set boundaries and prioritize your time. The holiday season can be busy and overwhelming, with many social events and obligations. It is important to set boundaries and prioritize your time so that you do not overextend yourself. This might mean saying no to some events or delegating tasks to others.

Maya: All true so far. I do like that this is the #1 tip, because it’s by far the thing coming most frequently with clients recently. Throughout the holiday season, we’re juggling a lot of pressure to attend work events, family events, friends’ parties. Possibly religious or cultural events as well.

The trick with setting boundaries is that it’s a skill that takes practice. It’s not enough to know boundaries are important if you don’t know how to use them. I work with my clients on clarifying their priorities and values, to inform when to say yes or no. If they’re people pleasers, they may need to work on giving themselves permission to say no or disappoint someone. We also practice finding the right words to communicate a boundary depending on the situation.

A mother and young daughter at a holiday dinner together, lit by candlelight.

Mind Your Physical Health

ChatGPT: 2. Take care of your physical health. The holiday season can be a time of indulgence, with lots of rich food and drinks. It is important to continue to eat healthy and exercise regularly to maintain your physical health.

Maya: I don’t love the framing of this tip, given how much hand-wringing we see about indulgent foods around the holidays. (And along with it, lots of implied fatphobia and worry about weight gain.) It’s ok to enjoy rich food and drinks as we celebrate without guilt or anxiety! And it’s perfectly normal to find your routines get thrown off during vacation time or family visits. 

Instead, try paying attention to how your body is feeling and what it needs. Are you feeling sluggish and run down? You might need a walk or a nap. Is your body craving green vegetables after three days of rich desserts? Nourish yourself with what it’s asking for. Paying attention to your body’s needs for sleep, rest, food, and movement are all great. In this “tripledemic” season, precautions to prevent illness are also part of physical self-care.

Prioritize Alone Time

ChatGPT: 3. Take time for yourself. The holiday season can be a hectic time, with lots of social events and obligations. It is important to take time for yourself to relax and recharge. This might mean setting aside time for a relaxing activity, such as meditation or reading a book.

Maya: This one resonates. As someone on the introverted side of the spectrum, alone time is so important for me, especially when visiting friends or family overnight! Sometimes, I’ll head out to run a helpful errand to get a little time alone, maybe stop for coffee on the way. In between travel and parties, I love taking time to veg out at home with a book or a video game when I can.

If you can afford the additional expense, renting a hotel room rather than staying in a guest room or on a sofa can provide some much needed respite during holiday visits. Some of my clients have found that renting a car is another way to find some freedom and space.

Finding alone time can be difficult if your hosts expect your presence 24/7. Which brings us back to tip #1, boundary setting!

A woman in a robe holds a cat. She is wearing a hydrating face mask and has a towel wrapped around her hair.

Stay Mindful

ChatGPT: 4. Practice mindfulness. The holiday season can be a time of stress and anxiety. Practicing mindfulness can help you stay present in the moment and manage your emotions. This might involve taking a few deep breaths and focusing on your breath, or simply being aware of your surroundings.

Maya: Ah, mindfulness. It’s the simplest thing, and yet can be incredibly difficult to put into practice. This is a great reminder by ChatGPT. After all, mindfulness is an ancient practice with proven benefits for stress relief and mental health. However, if you don’t already have a mindfulness practice going, you’re probably not going to get much out of this suggestion alone.

There are a number of places to learn how to implement a mindfulness practice online. Dr. Rona Maglian recently outlined some suggestions for getting started with mindfulness here on the Stella Nova blog. If guided meditations are more your speed, there are a variety of free options on YouTube, like this one by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Get Support When You Need It

ChatGPT: 5. Seek support from others. The holiday season can be a challenging time, and it is important to seek support from others if you need it. This might involve reaching out to friends or family members, or speaking with a therapist. It is important to remember that you are not alone, and that support is available.

Maya: The holidays can be difficult for more reasons than just busyness and a packed social schedule. It’s also a time that can bring up deep feelings of grief. For those who have suffered trauma, holidays can be a reminder of what’s been lost. It may mean being exposed to abusive family members. For LGBTQ+ folks, it can mean having to go back in the closet, or spend time in unsafe communities. People with eating disorders and other mental illnesses can find triggers around every corner.

For all these reasons and more, you’re definitely not alone if you need extra support. Make plans with people who you can truly be yourself with. And if you need to schedule an extra session before flying home for Christmas with the family, let your therapist know!

A young couple cuddles outdoors by a fire, wrapped in blankets.

Therapists Weigh In on ChatGPT’s Self-Care Advice

So how did ChatGPT do? I shared its advice with the Stella Nova team to get their input.

Some therapists were really impressed by the technology. San Francisco psychologist Sahar Dorani said, “WOW, I am very impressed by the depth of information and human-like language this AI produced! This is sound advice that touches on several variables. I would give this advice to a therapy client or a friend.”

Therapist Megan Sullivan-Tuba reacted brilliantly by giving asking ChatGPT to critique its own performance. She prompted it to provide constructive feedback on the post from an existential perspective, and appreciated its response:

ChatGPT: One area that you might consider expanding on in future posts is the concept of “radical acceptance.” In existential therapy, we often encourage clients to practice radical acceptance of their current situation, including any difficult emotions or circumstances that may arise during the holiday season. This can help individuals to let go of any resistance or denial they may be experiencing, and allow them to more fully engage with the present moment.

My takeaway? ChatGPT provided a nice, concise summary of common self-care advice given around the holidays. And yes, I was impressed by its language ability!

But I don’t think that it’s evidence that AI’s going to replace mental health professionals (or our blogs) anytime soon. The chatbot’s advice, while largely correct, is still surface level. When I asked it to generate anecdotes to illustrate the points it made, they were also quite general.

It’s also worth noting that AI learns the biases of the data that it’s trained on, which means that it can replicate harmful dynamics that are present in society. And it’s likely to have blind spots around the perspectives of people from marginalized groups. This is a much bigger problem than ChatGPT, but is important to keep in mind when considering mental health applications.

And Just For Fun

I asked ChatGPT to write a song about mental health in the style of a Christmas carol, and I think it’s a better writer than it is a lyricist. Here’s what it came up with:

Verse 1: It’s the most wonderful time of the year
But for some, it’s a time of fear
As the darkness closes in
And the pressure builds within

Chorus: Mental health, oh mental health
It’s important to take care
During this holiday season
And all throughout the year

Verse 2: Reach out to a friend or a loved one
And let them know you’re there
Talk about how you’re feeling
And show that you care

Chorus: Mental health, oh mental health
It’s important to take care
During this holiday season
And all throughout the year

Bridge: It’s okay to not be okay
It’s okay to ask for help
There’s no shame in seeking support
And there’s no need to yelp

Chorus: Mental health, oh mental health
It’s important to take care
During this holiday season
And all throughout the year

About The Author

Dr. Maya Borgueta is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Stella Nova Psychology, where she offers therapy online for clients throughout California. She’s interested in the intersections of mental health and technology, but she doesn’t believe that tech can replace a real human therapist. (At least, not until AI become fully sentient beings capable of emotion and connection. She has strong opinions about this.)

Maya’s specializes in supporting women of color in the business and tech industries around burnout, perfectionism, work stress and work-related trauma. She is currently running a support group for women in tech who have experienced a recent layoff.

Therapy For Holiday Stress & Winter Blues

Need some extra support this holiday season? Stella Nova offers online therapy for adults and couples online throughout California, and in-person in San Francisco. Our team has specialties in a variety of common mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety and stress, burnout, trauma, and more.

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