Protecting Your Mental Health This Holiday Season

By Kim Hiatt, MA, LLP

It’s that time of year again! The snow may or may not be falling in West Michigan, stores are bustling with shoppers, holiday lights are blinking, children are preparing their list for Santa, holiday cookies are being decorated and people are on the quest for the perfect tree. Sounds festive, right? For many this is an exciting and joyful time, for others this time of year looks very different. The holiday season can be stressful and often dreaded by many individuals. There is the added stress of buying presents, coordinating which family to see when, financial worries, loneliness, grief, family conflict ¾ and an increase in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

So, if you are one of those individuals who struggles to get into the holiday spirit due to any or all of the above; how can you get through the holidays without feeling so stressed and overwhelmed? Each year people struggle to find balance and not get too overcome by emotions during the holidays. The following tips might help with decreasing some of the tension this season.

Set and maintain health boundaries
You are not obligated to attend all the holiday parties. It’s okay to decline some of the work, friend, or neighborhood festivities. Be intentional about planning and who you are choosing to spend your time with. Save space for the people you value and enjoy. If spending time with certain family members brings upon conflict or increased stress, set healthy boundaries and avoid those settings. It’s alright to say “no.” It is important to protect your energy and your mental health.

Set realistic expectations
Don’t overextend yourself. This includes your time, money and gift giving. You don’t have to buy the biggest and best gift. Often your time is enough. If the cost of gift giving is more of a financial burden, consider alternatives. Cut down the list of those you buy for, talk to your friends or family to discuss eliminating this practice, or put a smaller budget on gift giving. You should not have to go into debt to enjoy the holidays. Remember spending time with those you love is a big part of the holiday spirit, so try not to get too caught up in the materialism this time of year can bring.

Engage in soothing activities
As your stress levels increase it is important to take care of yourself. Find activities that make you feel good. We often soothe through our senses. Take time for yourself, soak in a hot bath, go for a walk, have coffee with a friend, bake, light a candle, put on your favorite jammies or slippers, cuddle your pet or loved one, snuggle up in your favorite blanket, read a book, or call your person.

Be kind to yourself
It is important to be kind to yourself this time of year. If you wouldn’t say it to a friend or family member, don’t say it to yourself! Remind yourself you are doing your best, take it one day or even one task at a time. You’re human. It’s okay if things are last minute; it’s okay to buy the store-bought treats; it’s okay to not send the Christmas cards this year. Try to manage your self-talk. If a negative thought pops in, try to remind yourself you are doing the best you can, and give yourself more positive feedback or encouraging words.

Utilize relaxation techniques
Try to relax at the end of the day. If you are someone that has trouble unwinding, consider downloading a relaxation or deep breathing app to your phone. Practice muscle relaxation, take a yoga class or pull up a video, stretch in the morning when you get up. End your day with a good book or an entry in a gratitude journal.

Seek out supports
It’s okay to ask for help. Call a friend, talk with your partner or trusted person, or invite a co-worker to coffee. If you feel that stress or exacerbation of other symptoms becomes too overwhelming, you may need to consider reaching out to a mental health professional. If you don’t know where to start or turn to for help, your primary care physician’s office should be able to help connect you with an appropriate referral source.

As the season picks up and the busyness begins, it can be hard to maintain your normal schedule. Try not to stray from your normal routine. Be intentional about wake up and bedtime. Continue to take your routine medications. Keep up with daily chores as much as you can to avoid becoming overwhelmed with too much to do at the end of the week.

The holiday season can be more challenging if you have lost a loved one. Grief can feel more powerful during the holidays as family and friends gather together. The empty seat where a loved one should be is more noticeable. This is often hard to cope with and manage. It is okay to feel sad. Express and acknowledge what you are feeling. You may feel sadness, joy, or anger. You are allowed to have these feelings. Turn to your loved ones for comfort and support. Share stories or memories with friends and family. Continue with old traditions, or consider a new one by lighting a candle in memory of your loved one.

This festive season, take the time to take care of yourself and your mental health. Stay in the moment, manage what you can control, and find something little you can enjoy. Peace, light and wellness to you all this holiday season.