While the holidays may be a time of love, joy and celebration for some, that is certainly not the full story for many folks. Holidays are often portrayed through social media and movies as “the happiest time of the year” where everyone is joyous and seems to be having fulfilling experiences with their loved ones. However, for many people the holidays can also be quite stressful and challenging, with or without a mental illness or mental health condition. So, how do we strive for contentment if we find ourselves triggered by complicated dynamics, if we have experienced loss, feel lonely, or do not have loved ones to celebrate the holidays with at all?
“If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.” –Ram Dass
Surviving the Holiday Season with Your Mental Health Intact
Think Ahead and Prepare
Reflect on the challenges you foresee arising as a result of being around your family. Perhaps you find yourself getting into unnecessary arguments with certain family members year after year, or you may have difficulty maintaining healthy boundaries and end up discussing topics you didn’t plan to. Have a clear idea as to what your boundaries are and what you feel comfortable or uncomfortable discussing.
Stick to Your Routine
Stick to your routine, and stay committed to practicing self-care no matter what! This means you have to make time for you, and work yourself into your holiday schedule. If Aunt Dorothy brings up something uncomfortable, be prepared to take some deep breaths and maybe go for a walk if you feel overwhelmed. Insist on working in that morning yoga, run, or gym session before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and before Uncle Morty is on his third glass of wine and verbally taking aim. We are taught to attach a great deal of meaning to the holidays and the truth is you get to decide on what is meaningful in your life, not Hallmark or your family!
If you do not have a family of origin to spend time with, seek out a family of choice or a community to connect with. There are mental health support groups, community gatherings, and plenty of opportunities to volunteer and give back to those less fortunate. Being generative and getting outside of ourselves is an amazing way to push back against the holiday blues or to help us regulate emotionally.
There is nothing wrong with some solitude if that is an effective coping strategy for you. If you are surrounded by family, you may need to work a bit harder to seek that out, but do so with intention and precision to reduce stress. Be ready to throw in those ear pods, and crank up your favorite podcast while you find a quiet place to chill. Remember, solitude is an asset, isolation is likely a liability, especially for those with social anxiety. The line is different for everyone, but if you find yourself isolated this time of year do more to break out into the world.
It’s perfectly okay to need extra support during the holidays. Make a plan to access that support during the season. That may mean scheduling an extra therapy appointment or two with a mental health professional. You may want to have some relief by tapping in with your peer group, even something as simple as having a group text going with a couple of close friends. This may a be a place to commiserate in a healthy manner, vent, and feel seen and heard by people that matter to you.
Get those thoughts and feelings out on paper! Make a gratitude list, but also be willing to write and journal about the things that are not feeling so great. Avoid concrete or extreme thinking. The holidays are likely not going to be all good or all bad, it is likely going to be some of both. Such is life and reminding ourselves of this important truth is a way to stay tethered to our authentic selves.
Many people need firm and clear boundaries to get through the holidays. It’s important to remember that boundaries aren’t indicative of a lack of love. They allow healthy differentiation between us and others. Reflect on your boundaries around your physical and mental health and what your plan is if someone insists on violating them.
Examples of boundary setting with family members might include:
- “I don’t feel comfortable discussing my diet/the status of my relationship/my career.”
- “I know you mean well, but I don’t appreciate you bringing up this topic over and over again. I would like for you to stop or I’m going to leave the room/end this call.”
- “I’m not comfortable answering that or sharing my opining on X. Let’s switch to a different topic.”
- “I understand you’re curious, but that’s not something I feel comfortable sharing.”
- “Please don’t comment on my appearance. It’s not helpful for me to hear feedback about my body even if that’s a complement.”
Pick Your Battles
Taking some time to reflect on what battles are worth fighting for can give you a sense of empowerment. Instead of agreeing with something to please others, you may decide to communicate your different opinion or you may choose to stay silent and not engage in a conversation with someone that has very different views than you do and is unable to validate your truth. Both are okay as long as you’re intentional about it.
Lastly, allow yourself to find some levity and humor in the dysfunctional family holiday extravaganzas. Give yourself credit for being able to understand the dysfunction. Let it play our right in front of you and choose not to get swept in it. Trust what you’re feeling and listen to your own limits. Give yourself the gift of nurtured mental health for the holidays.