The holidays are often broadcasted as the “most wonderful time of the year,” but not everyone feels so merry and bright. In fact, the holidays often stir up many difficult emotions and past traumas, or become overwhelming for those struggling with mental illness. A survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that almost two-thirds of Americans with mental illness feel that the holidays make their condition worse. Just last year, another NAMI survey reported that 3 in 5 Americans say their mental health is negatively impacted by the holidays.
If you are struggling with your mental health this holiday season, you are not alone. Feelings of anxiety and stress can be overpowering, with pressures to see family and attend events. This stress can, in turn, exacerbate symptoms of mental illnesses (like bipolar disorder). Depression, loneliness, grief, and trauma are also common during the holidays, especially following a global pandemic. Substance abuse and relapse tend to rise over the holidays, too, as people try to find ways to self-medicate and cope.
While we are not here to say it is easy, we want you to know that it is possible to get through this holiday season—with the right coping mechanisms in place. You may even enjoy the holidays more than you expected to, by practicing the following techniques for stress relief and management.
How to Take Care of Your Mental Health During the Holidays
1. Accept your feelings.
It’s okay to feel sad or stressed during the holidays. It is okay if you are not in the “holiday spirit.” It is even okay if you feel conflicted emotionally, with joy and angst all at once. This time of year can be triggering for anyone, and there is no right or wrong way to feel. However, it is important that you accept those feelings, whatever they may be. Try your best to acknowledge and respect your emotions, rather than place judgment on them. Put yourself first and be your own advocate. Know what stirs up the negative emotions, and then take steps to avoid or cope with those factors.
2. Keep up with healthy habits.
When the holidays come around, it is easy to forget your exercise routine, skip out on healthy meals, or even to miss a good night’s sleep. However, do your best to stick to healthy habits and you will see this benefit your mental health. For example, incorporating healthy meals amidst the holiday madness will help you avoid adding stress or guilt to your plate. Getting eight hours of sleep at night will help you stay energized and stabilize your mood, even with the long days ahead. The Mayo Clinic recommends:
· Having a healthy snack before holiday meals so that you don’t go overboard on sweets or drinks.
· Getting plenty of sleep each night.
· Continuing to include regular physical activity into your daily routine.
· Practicing deep-breathing exercise, meditation, or yoga to stay balanced.
· Avoiding excessive alcohol and drug use.
· Adjusting the amount of time you spend on social media or watching the news, as that can be an added stressor in your daily life.
3. Prioritize time for self-care.
Although the holidays can mean a chock-full calendar, you must always reserve a little bit of time for yourself each day. This could mean a few minutes spent relaxing each day, or some time spent doing an activity you enjoy. Taking care of yourself will allow you to reduce stress, clear your mind, connect with your thoughts, and renew energy. It also helps to find your inner calm, and keep your head afloat.
Easy and common ways to practice self-care this holiday season include:
· Getting outdoors, such as going for a hike or taking the dog for a walk
· Reading a book you love
· Going to the movies
· Getting a massage or manicure
· Taking a bath
· Listening to music you enjoy
· Doing an activity that makes you feel good (such as cooking or playing a game)
4. Focus on what you can control—and be realistic.
During the holidays, it is easy to become overwhelmed with things to do. It is easy to feel bad when things do not go “as planned” or turn out “perfect.” If possible, try to take a step back and remember that you cannot control everything. Try to be realistic about what you can do in a day, and about your expectations for those tasks. The holidays do not have to be perfect, and you cannot control all of the happenings. For example, if your family cannot gather in person this year, know there are still ways to celebrate. Try to embrace new traditions or technologies (such as Zoom) to connect with one another.
For things in your control, just remember to try not to do too much. Make yourself a realistic to-do list to help ensure you never feel too overwhelmed throughout the day. Making this list can help you prioritize your time and activities. You may consider having a day for shopping, a day for baking, and scheduled times for connecting with friends. Remember, it’s okay to say no to things that do not bring you joy or that do not fit into your schedule. Try not to do too much.
5. Set boundaries and avoid your triggers.
Everyone has something (or someone) that triggers negative emotions or reactions. Perhaps it is a stressful family dynamic that brings you anxiety. Maybe it is an annual Christmas party that triggers your desire to binge drink or use drugs. Perhaps it is pressure from family or friends “to get in the spirit” that make you feel overwhelmed. Maybe it is financial constraints that are keeping you stressed during the gift-giving season. As you dive into this holiday season, ask yourself: What triggers me most?
Once you know your triggers, learn how to set boundaries. For example, if hosting a family dinner or buying expensive gifts is too stressful for you, know that it is okay to say “no” and do an alternative. If
you find family gatherings too overwhelming, know that’s okay to limit your time spent with family and friends. Try to find ways to limit your exposure to things that do not bring you joy, even if that means saying “no” to loved ones occasionally.
6. Write a gratitude list.
While we’ve focused on many of the negative emotions that the holidays can cause, it’s also important to think about the positive things in your life, too. Giving thanks for positive aspects of your life—such as friends, shelter, sobriety—can have a wonderful impact on your mental health. In fact, studies show that expressing gratitude can help people sleep better, reduce stress levels, and improve relationships.
With that in mind, take some time to reflect on the last 12 months and make a list of what brings you gratitude. Consider also thanking the people that have supported you, or that bring you joy.
7. Keep up with therapy. Or, connect with your support system.
If you are already in therapy, it is incredibly important to keep up with your regular sessions over the holidays. The best way to cope with difficult emotions or experiences is to speak with a professional who specializes in mental health. This is the person who can help you create an actionable plan to overcome your struggles and feel better this holiday season.
If you do not have a therapist, consider reaching out to someone that supports you. This could be a close friend, family member, teacher or mentor. This is someone who you feel comfortable speaking to, and being open with, and who will support you no matter what. However, if you are feeling overwhelmed and this does not help you, consider seeking professional support, too.
When to Seek Professional Mental Health Treatment
If you have tried the above techniques, and are still feeling persistently sad, stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, it may be time to seek professional help. A mental health professional can help you get to the root of your mental health issues, and develop a plan to tackle them in a healthy way.
How do you know when it’s time to seek the help of a therapist or mental health counselor? In truth, it can never be “too early” to seek treatment. Many people attend therapy for its benefits, even those without a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder. If you are struggling with your mental health, you can always pick up the phone to call a treatment provider. If you are unsure if you are ready, ask yourself:
· Do I constantly feel sad or depressed, anxious or overwhelmed, stressed or out of sorts, despite my best effort to stay healthy?
· Are my negative feelings beginning to interfere with my ability to carry out day-to-day tasks?
· Am I struggling to sleep or eat normally?
· Are my relationships taking a toll, because of my mental health?
· Does my body feel physically unwell?
If you answered yes to any of the above, consider giving us a call. Turnbridge is a mental health treatment provider with inpatient and outpatient services available. Call 877-581-1793 today.