Managing Mental Health During the Holidays
As wonderful as the holiday season can be, it can also be a difficult time for a number of reasons. Festive celebrations might mark sad anniversaries or be a reminder of traditions or people you have lost. Perhaps your version of holidays didn’t include celebrations, and the commercialism and giving spirit emphasizes more stress than good tidings. This blog is going to explore some practical tips you can apply to reduce your stress over this holiday season regardless of your participation in any festive activity or not.
Know Your Limits
An important aspect of good mental health over the holidays is knowing your limits and honouring them. Limits can include personal limits and financial limits. It can be compelling to overspend if someone you haven’t purchased a gift for tells you they are excited for you to open the gift they purchased you but you’re at the limit of your spending budget, or perhaps you see more presents under the tree with your name and feel an urge to spend more so that there are more gifts to give in return.
I encourage you to consider all of the ways that you can embrace the spirit of giving in your relationships. Here are some more cost efficient ways to give over the holiday season:
- Do some holiday baking
- Make homemade Christmas tree ornaments from bits and pieces you find in nature
- In honour of giving gifts, donate to a charity of your choosing
- Do a Secret Santa or "white elephant" gift exchange so that the responsibility of buying gifts for everyone is distributed among the members of the group, whether it is family, friends or coworkers
The holidays can be a time of fun and also a time of obligation. Setting boundaries during the holidays to manage your mental health might look like opting out of invitations, cancelling plans that pack your schedule too tightly, even saying no to participating in some family events. Boundaries can also look like refusing to engage in uncomfortable conversations or family dynamics. Perhaps your family likes to comment on your diet or your body at gatherings, or maybe they engage in gossip or bickering. You can set boundaries in these situations by stating that you don’t want to talk about a certain subject, “I don’t want to talk about this right now,” or by leaving the room. You will enjoy the holiday much more if you are not feeling obligated or emotionally drained.
Tips to maintain healthy boundaries at the holidays:
- Know your effective grounding/calming strategies ahead of time - take a time out to practice calm breathing, use a crossword for mental distraction, go for a walk, bring a book to read, etc.
- Tap into your feelings - recognize that guilt can arise from a desire for harmony, but if you are sacrificing your own feelings or needs, then you can set a boundary
- Give yourself permission to set a boundary
- Be direct with your boundary and have a consequence in mind, e.g., “if you continue to talk about this subject, I’m going to leave”
Keep a Routine
Let’s be honest, it can be difficult to keep a routine anytime, let alone start a new habit, even outside of the holidays! Difficult—but not impossible. Between meetings, running errands and having some enjoyment, our regular routines can be thrown off during the holidays, including sleeping, eating and doing our l every day activities. This year, I encourage you to stick to your regular routine as much as possible and insert holiday festivities in between. For example, if getting physical exercise is important to your well-being, make sure that you prioritize this over other things that might come up. Perhaps you have some family or other plans intruding on your regular volunteer hours which help you feel a sense of purpose and connection to the community. Opt to arrive later, or compromise on the timing of plans so that you don’t chastise yourself later for interrupting the flow of your regular routine.
Get Enough Sleep
I can’t emphasize the positive benefits of getting enough sleep. With last-minute plans, late holiday gatherings and even the excitement, our sleep routine can go out the window during the holidays. Seeing busy with plans can also reinforce an already unhealthy sleep pattern. Research has linked Poor sleep habits to increased anxiety and depression, decreased motivation and energy and decreased tolerance to stress. We can also become more irritable, more easily frustrated and more clumsy when we don’t have enough sleep. On top of that, getting insufficient sleep challenges our body’s immune system. Sticking to scheduled bedtime and wake times can reinforce a healthy sleep schedule, and you can easily set reminder alarms to help reinforce this.
I’m not going to pretend that the holidays are all great or all bad. I believe that they can be a mix of both. Setting aside time each day to do things you enjoy and reflect on the positive experiences you are having can help to cultivate appreciation and gratitude even on a difficult day. I encourage you to take a moment each day, maybe when you wake up or before you go to sleep, and think of three positive aspects from the day. This can help you cultivate a more balanced perspective and acknowledge the inherent goodness that can come from growth even on difficult days.
The holidays can be a time of indulgence, including with food and alcohol. For individuals who are in eating disorder recovery, the holidays can be an especially difficult time as triggers may be present around or on the table. With alcohol, it may be commonplace to have a few drinks during holiday gathering. Practicing mindful drinking (sip, savour and space out your drinks) can lead to healthy moderation and avoid the negative side effects of alcohol such as decreased mood and increased anxiety.
Ask for Help
Don’t be afraid to ask for help during the holidays. This can look like asking a colleague to cover your shift or take over an aspect of a project, asking your spouse to help in the kitchen or with gift shopping, or asking family to offer support in some way. Knowing who your social supports, emotional support, tangible supports and informational supports are can help you resource yourself so that you don’t feel obligated to take on every responsibility yourself. Asking for help at this time of year might also look like talking to your therapist about managing stress, that is absolutely acceptable as well.
[Editor's note: This blog written by Ashley Greensmyth is cross-posted at https://www.parallelwellness.ca/mental-health-at-the-holidays]