If the thought of the holidays doesn’t exactly fill you with cheer, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Around 64% of people with mental illness report that the holidays make their conditions worse. Moreover, according to the American Psychological Association, roughly 38% of people overall say their stress increases during the holiday season, which can lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Why is it that the holidays, for many people, are a time of year to dread? Some of the most common reasons given are lack of time, financial pressure, expectations of gift-giving, and family gatherings. So, yes, holidays can be a joyful time, but they can also be lonely and can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression.
We have some valuable tips for maintaining positive mental health over the holidays. Read on to discover our evidence-based strategies on how to reduce stress and maintain good mental health during the holiday season.
Be Kind to Yourself
It’s okay to put your own mental and physical well-being first. In order to effectively care for others, we first have to care for ourselves. Ask yourself: what are my triggers? Does shopping for holiday gifts stress you out, or is it all of the meals you are expected to cook? Identifying and recognizing your triggers can help you mentally and physically prepare for stressful situations. This process can also help you evaluate your coping mechanisms.
Holidays can create extra expenses. Holidays provide expectations to spend money on food, travel and gifts. If your children’s Christmas lists are growing by the day, it may be time to sit down and practice a little intentional gratitude. Gratitude has actually been shown to improve mental health. As we near the end of the year, it is the perfect time to reflect on what you’re grateful for and to thank all those who have supported you.
Remember, the lives that are portrayed in holiday movies and commercials are purely fictional. We all have struggles, and it’s simply not realistic to expect otherwise. Sometimes, it’s just not possible to find the “perfect” gift or have a peaceful gathering with extended family.
Before going into a situation – your daughter’s Christmas Day party or a holiday-themed work event – take some time to evaluate your thoughts: Are you setting yourself up for disappointment by harboring unrealistically high expectations? Holiday events can be stressful, with many moving parts, which only increases the likelihood of conflict. Take a deep breath, relax your shoulders, and give yourself a simple task: just try to enjoy yourself!
Prioritize Self Care
Schedule time for activities that make you feel good. This might mean reading a book, going to the movies, getting a massage, listening to music you love, or taking your pet for a walk. It’s okay to prioritize alone time during the holidays ,so that you have adequate time and space to recharge.
Deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation are also good ways to calm yourself. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a break to refocus; these moments of rest can have benefits that last far beyond the immediate moment.
Schedule time to walk or bike outside, or perhaps join a dance or movement class. Whatever you do, make sure that it is fun and raises your heart rate. Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body and improves your overall physical health.
Eat well. With dinners, parties, and cookie trays at every turn, even the most healthy of eaters is challenged during the holiday season. Although it is difficult, try to maintain a reasonably healthy diet throughout, if possible. Eating unprocessed foods, like whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit is the foundation for a healthy body and mind. Eating well also helps to stabilize your mood.
Remember to get enough quality sleep. Symptoms of some mental health conditions, like bipolar disorder, can be triggered by getting too little sleep. Getting enough sleep helps you regulate your emotions, control your reactions, and manage your expectations.
Avoid Alcohol & Drugs
Substances like alcohol and drugs don’t actually reduce stress; in fact, they often make stress worse. If you’re struggling with substance abuse, now is the time to educate yourself and get help. Whether you’re seeking behavior-change strategies for yourself or a loved one, 3rd Millennium Classrooms offers evidence-based online courses that have helped millions of people make better decisions about their alcohol and drug use.
Although there are some great tips here on how to prepare yourself for the holidays, it’s important to realize that you may put all of these ideas into practice and still continue to feel overwhelmed or depressed. This can lead you to engage in unsafe behaviors with alcohol or drug use. Accept that everyone deserves support on their journey to healthy behaviors, and reach out to get some professional help.
Studies have shown that spending time in nature effectively reduces stress. The next time you need a break away from family during a holiday gathering, don’t escape to your bedroom. Instead, go outside and take a walk. Admire the beauty around you, get some fresh air, and return feeling much more peaceful.
Reach Out to People You Love
Talking with family members, a counselor or therapist, a support group, or an online community can help you process your thoughts and feelings. Talking it out can be an essential step in maintaining a healthy mindset during the holidays.
You are not alone. Connect with those you love , and share your experiences. There are so many people who struggle to maintain their mental health throughout the holidays. Don’t be scared to speak up about your challenges. You may even encourage others to do the same.