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Mental Health and the Holidays: A Guide to Managing Stress

Dec. 14, 2021

The holidays are a wonderful time to reconnect with family, take some time off work and celebrate. But the holiday season may not be as joyful for those struggling with mental health.


A report from the National Alliance of Mental Health found that 64% of people living with a mental illness said that the holidays make their condition worse.

We've created the following guide discussing some of the common stressors and mental health struggles experienced around holidays.

Loneliness During the Holidays

Whether you live far away from your close family and friends, or you feel a sense of emotional distance from the people you're with, loneliness during holidays can make this time of the year tough.

Reach Out to Others

It's hard to put yourself in the vulnerable position of reaching out to others. However, you may find that most of the people you talk to will be happy to connect! Many people may be delighted during the holiday season to reunite with old friends or get to know the people around them.

Call a family member out of the blue, message old friends on social media and be kind to people you encounter. You may be surprised that the new connection you make with someone is the perfect gift for both of you.

Join a Support Group

It's important to remember that you're not alone. Joining a support group will give you an outlet to safely express your feelings and remind yourself that you're not the only person with these emotions.

You may even make a friend or two who truly understands what you're going through and can help provide you with some emotional support.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is characterized by a lower mood or feelings of depression during the colder times of the year when there is less sunlight. Even though the holidays are associated with a time of joyfulness, those with SAD may have difficulty maintaining their mood and energy levels.

Get Some Sun

The sun triggers the release of chemicals in your body that can help regulate your mood. Although a few minutes in the sun won’t fix your seasonal affective disorder, you may find your day has become more enjoyable.

If possible, go for a walk in the morning or offer to take your family dog outside for a few minutes during the day.

Exercise

The "holiday blues” will often leave you feeling lethargic and unmotivated. Engaging in moderate exercise, even for just 15 minutes a day, can improve your body’s mood and energy levels.

Do Something Kind for Others

The holiday season provides countless opportunities for you to engage in acts of kindness and charity. Spending part of your day dedicated to the welfare of someone else may be just what you need to add a spark of joy back to this time of year.

Separation Caused by COVID-19

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most unprecedented and stressful times in their lives. Many families and friends are maintaining their distance until it is safer to return to normal, pre-COVID-19 times. Despites these challenges, it is important to still find ways to connect with your loved ones.

Plan Times to Connect

Although you may not be able to be with your family in the physical world, technology has made it possible for you to still be together.

Schedule daily Zoom calls, virtual wine nights or even online cooking classes that you can do together to feel more connected.

Even funny text messages and videos can make you feel closer and be a way to spend time with loved ones.

Get Creative

Give yourself a feeling of "togetherness" by getting creative with the ways that you can show love for your family and friends this year.

Whether it's making a scrapbook of pictures, planning an upcoming trip with your siblings or writing letters to loved ones that you can hand deliver the next time you see them, there are many ways you can honor your loved ones so you don't feel alone.

Stressors with Being Around Family

Spending time with family over the holidays can be helpful for connecting, but can be stressful, as well. With the right approach ahead of time, you can make these family events more enjoyable.

Set Boundaries

Everyone has certain topics that are sensitive, and certain family members have a knack for bringing them up. Before you attend family events, set aside time to determine what your boundaries are and how you will make them firm.

Practice a few phrases you can say to family members who are pushing your buttons. If worst comes to worst, think of a way you can politely exit a conversation that is going south.

Limit Time on Social Media

Social media is a great way to talk with friends and make you feel more connected to the people you miss, but it may exacerbate anxious or depressed feelings during the holidays.

People often post images on social media of their happy family without acknowledging the struggles that every family goes through.

If you often find yourself comparing your home life to the people on social media, it may be best to take a break during the holidays.

Managing the Busy Nature of the Holidays

From traveling around the country to see family members to attending daily social events, the holidays are a busy time for everyone.

For those managing a mental health condition, the eventful nature of the holidays adds a layer of stress. It can become easy to feel overwhelmed.

Set Realistic Expectations

Before the holiday festivities begin, take some time with yourself to decide how much you can handle. Setting realistic expectations will help to prevent you from getting overwhelmed and experiencing too much stress during the holidays.

For instance, if you suffer from significant anxiety, attending holidays parties four days in a row may be too much. Instead, attending three and using one night as a night to reset may be just what your body needs.

Write Things Down

Keep a notebook handy for your mental health and the holiday season.

A tangible outlet to write down your thoughts, from making a list of the ingredients you need to buy for your recipe to a calendar of upcoming social events, will keep you organized and calm.

If you're feeling stressed or upset, your notebook can become your journal. Journaling has been proven to reduce stress and even physical symptoms associated with illness.

Practice Mindfulness

When you're running around from place to place, you may forget to take some time for yourself. Set aside 10 minutes every day dedicated solely to sitting still and focusing on your breathing. Be mindful of and present for the thoughts and feelings you’re having. Know that it will pass.

Handling Grief and Loss

Grief comes in waves, and you may find your grief resurfacing during the holidays. It is completely natural to find yourself struggling to cope when you're missing a loved one.

Lean on Friends and Family

Chances are that you're not alone in the grief you feel. Many of your family members and close friends will also be missing that special loved one.

Set aside time during the holidays to remember your loved one. It may even be an opportunity to get closer with family members who you do not know as well.

Tune Into Your Emotions

During the holidays, you'll likely experience positive and negative emotions. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying the holidays and missing someone you care about at the same time.

Do your best to fully embrace everything you feel, both the good and the bad. While it may be tempting to numb emotions with drugs and alcohol, you will feel much better in the long run if you allow your feelings to run their course without judgment.

Honor Traditions and Create New Ones

It may be helpful for some people to honor old traditions to celebrate the individuals who are no longer here. Traditions will keep their memory alive.

For others, creating new traditions can also be a part of the healing process. Remember that your loved one would want you to be happy during the holiday season.

Making the Best of Your Mental Health and the Holidays

Though the holidays bring significant stress, especially to those already struggling with their mental health, there are many positives to help you make the most of your mental health and the holidays.

Take time to express gratitude for what you have and acknowledge all that you have accomplished this year. After one of the most unprecedented times in recent history, you have only grown stronger.

For more support during the holidays, connect with one of our mental health professionals by calling 513-558-7700.