Managing Mental Health During the Holidays

By Elyssa Lee, MSW, LCSWA

The holiday season is often referred to as the “most wonderful time of the year”. While that may be true, it is no secret that it can also be one of the most stressful and challenging times of the year, especially for those dealing with mental health challenges. Along with joy, the holiday season brings many demands such as cooking, managing difficult family dynamics, shopping, and entertaining, just to name a few. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of individuals with a mental health disorder report that holidays make their conditions worse. The stresses that accompany this season make prioritizing mental health during this time especially important. Here are some suggestions on how to reduce stress and manage mental health this season.

Practice Self Care
During a season where the focus is often on giving and on the needs and wants of those around us, it is so easy to forget to tune in to our own needs and practice self care. The holidays often also lead to disruption in day-to-day routines. Making sure you maintain healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, going to therapy, and avoiding excessive alcohol or drug use are critical to managing mental health. In addition, making sure you are taking time for yourself is vital to self care. Spending just 15 minutes alone without distractions can be enough to reduce stress and make you feel refreshed. Take 15 minutes a day to do an enjoyable activity (taking a walk, reading a book, listening to music, etc) that reduces stress, slows your breathing, and allows you to restore an inner calm. Remember that self care is not selfish! Taking time to refresh yourself not only benefits you, but allows you to be your best for those around you.

Acknowledge Your Feelings
The holiday season can be an increasingly emotional time for many people. Amid the hustle and bustle, it can be easy to try to ignore and be distracted from dealing with emotion. However, to manage mental health well, it is important to acknowledge and not suppress your feelings. If you have lost a loved one, can’t be with loved ones for other reasons, or have difficult family relationships, know that it is normal to feel anxiety, sadness, and grief. It is okay and necessary to take time to cry, journal, talk to someone, and express your feelings. You don’t have to try to force yourself to be happy just because it is the holiday season.

Be Realistic and set Boundaries
Accepting your needs, knowing your limitations, and setting realistic expectations for yourself are also imperative parts of self care during this busy season. Be kind to yourself and don’t hold yourself to perfectionistic expectations that only increase stress. Put your own physical and mental well being first. Be realistic in your commitments, be willing to delegate tasks, and remember that it is okay to say no!

Making a daily schedule can be a great way to manage and prioritize your time to help reduce being overwhelmed by everyday tasks and deadlines.

Setting a budget can also be helpful in reducing financial stress by helping to avoid spending outside of your means. Giving homemade gifts or starting a family gift exchange can be helpful alternatives.

Know that it is also okay to set boundaries with family and friends. You don’t have to commit to every gathering and activity. Pay attention to your emotional needs. Recognize what your triggers are to identify needed boundaries and clearly communicate these boundaries to loved ones (I statements are a great way to do this). Know that it is okay to not discuss certain topics, not engage in every conversation, excuse yourself if needed, or to even not go to certain events. Here are some helpful articles on how to set boundaries with family during the holidays:

How to Reduce Holiday Stress by Setting Strong Boundaries

Practice Gratitude
Practicing gratitude has been shown to improve mental health and is an effective way to shift perspective and reduce stress and negative mindsets. Beginning or ending each day by reflecting on at least 3 things you’re grateful for can be a quick and effective way to manage stress and focus on what is important to you during this season.

Reach out for support
Know that you do not have to walk through the stress and challenges of the holiday season alone. Reach out for support whether it is with a counselor, support group, friend, or family member. There is no shame in being honest with how you are feeling and asking for support. Talking through your emotions with someone you trust is a great way to process them, feel support, reduce stress, and effectively manage mental health.

The holidays do not have to be a stressful time that you dread. Learning to recognize your triggers, identify your needs, and consistently taking the steps to prioritize your mental health day to day can set you on a path for successfully managing your mental health and enjoying the holiday season.