Anxiety, Depression

5 ways to maintain your mental health during the holiday season

By Caitlin B. 

The holidays can be an exciting and enjoyable time. For many of us, it truly is the “most wonderful time of the year”.

But the holiday season can also be a source of stress, loneliness, and frustration. Between traveling, cooking, spending time with family, and constantly feeling pressured to have fun, it’s no wonder that many people with mental health issues struggle during the holidays.

Are we doomed to suffer? No way! Even if you’re overwhelmed or feeling the holiday blues, it’s possible to take care of yourself and de-stress.

Read on for some tips on how to look after your mental health this holiday season.


#1 – Don’t try to do it all

Many of us wind up overwhelmed or stressed out because of an overstuffed to-do list. Between school plays, work events, family parties, and friends dropping by for visits, it’s easy to feel like you’ve got way too much on your plate.

The solution is to pare down that to-do list as much as possible. Work with your spouse or family to decide which events you need to attend and which you can skip. If you’re having a particularly hard time with your mental health issues, don’t be afraid to make bare-bones holiday plans. Your friends, family, and coworkers might like to have you celebrate with them, but the event can still carry on without you.

Check in with yourself regularly and adjust your schedule as needed. Don’t be ashamed of skipping events that would otherwise leave you exhausted and miserable. Even if you’re feeling well, make sure you don’t schedule too many holiday events back-to-back. Plan to set aside some quiet time for yourself so can recover in between events.


#2 – Ask for help when you need it

Here’s the biggest holiday crime I’m guilty of: I take on way too much and then feel embarrassed about asking others to bail me out. Whether I’m trying to host Thanksgiving all by myself or singlehandedly wrapping every Christmas present in the house, I often wind up overworked and sheepish about asking someone to step in and help me.

Don’t be like me! If you need help, ask for it. At this time of year, people are usually eager to pitch in and feel like they’re making a contribution to the holiday season. So let them! If you aren’t able to manage the tasks you’ve taken on, there’s no shame in asking those around you to help pick up the slack.

The holidays are a time for togetherness, not for doing it all by yourself. Whether it’s holiday cooking or support during a difficult emotional moment, reach out for help when things get to be too much.


#3 – Make your own rules

One of the most painful aspects of the holiday is the feeling that you’re not doing things “right”. Many of us have an idealized image of what the holidays should look like. Often, it’s the sort of thing that will never be found outside of a Hallmark movie.

The holidays can be messy, confusing, and filled with conflict. Even if you have a wonderful circle of family or friends, there’s bound to be a few moments of frustration. If you don’t have the sort of loving and supportive family that the holidays are supposed to be all about, it can be even more painful.

Take the pressure off yourself by remembering that there is no right or wrong way to enjoy the holidays. You’re allowed to do whatever feels right for you. Give yourself permission to make the holidays your own and do what is in your own best interest.

If that means avoiding a toxic family situation and spending the holidays with a friend instead, then go for it. If it means booking a hotel room rather than cramming into an overcrowded bedroom at grandma’s house, give yourself permission to do that too. It’s OK to enjoy the holidays on your terms, not anyone else’s.


#4 – Get some space

Even folks without mental health issues often claim that the holidays can be nerve-wracking. For those of us who suffer from mental illness, it can especially difficult. Casual get-togethers can become overwhelming. Family dinners can be suffocating. Travel itself is a trigger for many people who struggle with anxiety or PTSD.

Looking for a way to take some of the pressure off? Try planning an exit strategy in advance! Take some time to consider what you’ll do if you start to get overwhelmed while traveling or socializing. Make a plan of action.

Can you retreat to another room or to a hotel? Could you bring your own vehicle so you can leave whenever you need to? Do you have a supportive spouse or friend who can help you make a quick departure if it becomes necessary?

Give yourself permission to take a step back when you need to do so. Then make plans for how you’ll put that strategy into place.


#5 – Take care of your physical health

It’s impossible to take care of your mental health when your physical health is suffering. Unfortunately, we aren’t always in our best self-care mode during the holidays.

Parties can offer tons of unhealthy foods and copious amounts of alcohol. The weather is often bad, which can keep you from exercising and leave you feeling depressed. Holiday stress can keep you from sleeping well. All in all, it’s easy to lose track of your health-related goals.

There’s nothing wrong with having an extra piece of pie for Christmas dinner or skipping your workout to go to a holiday party with friends. But if you abandon all your healthy habits, your mental health is likely to suffer.

Make a plan to keep yourself on track. Sit down and think of 3-5 actionable things you can do each day to look after your health. For example, I know that exercise makes a big difference in easing my anxiety symptoms. I also know that alcohol and caffeine always trigger my anxiety. So my holiday goals are to keep up with my daily workouts and avoid any drinks that contain alcohol or caffeine. I also do meal-prep Sundays to make sure I have a stock of healthy food during the week.

You don’t have to solve all your health problems at once. But decide what healthy-living strategies you can reasonably fit into your winter and make a commitment to stick with them.


Letting go of “perfection”

Most important of all, let go of the idea of the “perfect” holiday season. There’s no such thing. Even under the best of circumstances, the holidays are often a bit rough for many of us. Some years are more difficult than others. If you’re dealing with a job loss, the end of a marriage, the death of a loved one, or simply a relapse in your mental illness, it can be hard to watch other people enjoy the holidays. You may feel left out or feel like you’re a failure.

Instead, trust that everyone else is doing the same thing you’re doing: we’re all just muddling along as best we can. Let go of any idealized expectations and enjoy the holidays for whatever they are for you. And if your holiday season isn’t much fun this year, try to accept that some years are more difficult than others. Instead of feeling discouraged by whatever you’ve faced in 2017, look forward to a brighter and better 2018.

Happy holidays, and my best wishes for a very happy New Year!

What parts of the holiday season are most difficult for you? How do you cope with holiday stress? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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