It’s that time of year…
If you’re reading this, you’ve made it through, “Thanksgiving.” Congrats, seriously, we mean it. Somehow it has become culturally embedded that we are supposed to feel happy or at least put on a happy face during this time. This is confusing because, in graduate training courses for therapy, there are whole classes dedicated to this being one of the most difficult times for folks in regard to mental health. We at Creative Now Therapy hope this mental health survival guide will be useful.
For many, it can be a period of heightened stress, anxiety, and loneliness. This is especially true for folks who struggle with SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, or “the winter blues.” So, as we navigate the festivities, it’s crucial to prioritize our mental well-being. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore practical strategies to foster emotional resilience, maintain balance, and find joy during the holiday season. Also, no pressure to do any part of this list, we don’t want this guide to become yet another way to burden yourself.
1. Acknowledge Your Feelings & Difficult Family Dynamics
The holidays can evoke a range of emotions, from excitement to nostalgia or even sadness. It’s essential to acknowledge and accept these feelings without judgment. Whether you’re celebrating with loved ones or facing the season alone, recognizing and validating your emotions is the first step toward a healthier mindset. Moreover, these feelings often have to do with family dynamics, which really get kicked up around family gatherings.
Additionally, we don’t all have supportive families, or people we feel close to in our families. Often these relationships are complex or have many unresolved issues, as we are taught to sweep these under the rug. What is “supposed to” feel like a joyful time can be full of discomfort and tension. Additionally, this can bring up loneliness and isolation regardless of whether you’re with your family or estranged from them. Or, the holidays can highlight the absence of a loved one we’ve lost to death or the end of a relationship.
2. Set Realistic Expectations & Evaluate Priorities
Often, the pressure to create a perfect holiday experience can lead to stress and disappointment. Set realistic expectations for yourself and others. Embrace imperfections, and remember that you can find some pleasure in connection and shared moments, not flawless celebrations. It’s important to consider what actually matters to you during the holidays. Social media and over culture often portray deeply idealized versions of the holidays, which can create a lot of pressure for us. Or we can go into comparison mode, a helpful adage to remember is, “compare and despair.”
So, it’s important to ask yourself, does what you’re participating in align with your values or what you’d like to be prioritizing in your life? Maybe it’s time to let go of activities and expectations that no longer fit into your current life or that don’t bring you pleasure. This is easier said than done, so also have compassion for how hard it can feel to let go things despite how unsatisfactory they have begun (going against culture, family or otherwise can be scary). Finally, while it’s difficult for many of us to let go of control, delegating holiday tasks can keep us from turning into a chicken with it’s head cut off. Think about sharing the tasks of meal prep, decorating, and organizing events to keep your to-do list from becoming unmanageable, as can often happen this time of year.
3. Create Boundaries & Saying “No” more often
Establishing boundaries is crucial during the holiday season, especially when faced with social obligations, work-related stress, or family dynamics. Learn to say no when needed, prioritize self-care, and carve out moments for solitude to recharge and reflect. As much as we don’t like to admit, we do not have endless time and energy, and it only gets more precious as we get older. It’s important that we say no in order to protect this valuable commodity. Let others know your limits, so they too can support your wellbeing and be selective about where you spend your time and energy so that you do not get stressed and overwhelmed during an already hectic and complex time.
4. Stay Connected & Communicate Openly
While some may find comfort in socializing, others might feel overwhelmed. Strike a balance that suits your preferences. Whether it’s attending gatherings, joining virtual celebrations, or spending quality time with a small group, prioritize connections that uplift and support your well-being. Equally as important is letting the people you trust know if you are moving through a major life change. The holidays can be an extremely difficult time to go through these experiences.
It’s okay to take a time out from the holidays or some of the festivities. If the people close to you don’t support this, that may be an indicator that it’s time to re-evaluate these relationships and how much effort you want to put into them. Open communication with friends and family can also help manage their expectations and prevent misunderstandings.
5. Mindful Consumption
If possible, be mindful of your consumption habits, whether it’s food, alcohol, or online content. Indulge in holiday treats in moderation, stay hydrated, and be conscious of your digital intake. Unplug when needed and focus on activities that nourish your mind and body. However, also be compassionate with yourself around needing to rely on these habits more heavily during the holidays. We can’t do it all at once, and sometimes introducing moderation during the holidays can be overwhelming. See what fits for you.
6. Financial Awareness
Financial strain during the holidays can contribute to stress. Set a realistic budget for decorations, gifts, and celebrations. Also, consider alternative ways to express your love and appreciation. Handmade gifts, quality time, or thoughtful gestures often hold more value than extravagant purchases. If it makes sense for you and your family, you can discuss what is an easier way to gift give. A Secret Santa exchange could be a fun way to manage a budget. Or deciding on a set price point for gifts so that others don’t feel bad about having a different budget.
7. Create a Plan & Prioritize Self-Care:
Amid the hustle and bustle, don’t forget to prioritize self-care. Set aside time for activities that bring you joy, whether it’s reading, taking a nature walk, or practicing mindfulness. Investing in your well-being is an essential gift to yourself during the holiday season. During this time, we can often find ourselves overcommitted to various social obligations. This is where a non-negotiable plan, schedule, or to-do list can come in handy. Schedule your breaks in. Yes, it may seem silly, but we are more likely to commit to them when they are on the calendar. Schedule your naps, bedtime, exercise, meals, time outs, whatever works for you. Make sure to break down large tasks into smaller ones, as being overwhelmed is often a part of this time.
8. Put attention on the Rituals and traditions that feel right for You.
Take a moment to reflect on the past and what traditions bring you joy and which ones do not. By focusing on the activities that have meaning for you, rather than ones you feel pressured or obligated to do, you set yourself up to have a more satisfying time. On the other hand, it’s not easy to step away from all the commitments, especially if there is backlash from your family. Start small and see how it feels to take away one activity you don’t enjoy or feel aligned with.
For those of us from different cultures or backgrounds, this holiday season can leave us feeling left out and disconnected. Make sure to take extra care during this time and engage in the activities that bring you joy or even your own cultural traditions that might not get as much time during work weeks.
9. Seeking Professional Mental Health Support:
If the holiday season exacerbates feelings of anxiety or sadness, consider seeking professional support. Therapists, counselors, and mental health professionals can offer guidance and coping strategies tailored to your specific needs. Yes, there are a lot of holidays and time off, but therapists are very aware that this can be an emotionally trying time and can work with you to set up a therapy schedule or plan that supports you during the holidays.
As the holiday season unfolds, prioritize your mental health with intention and care. Embrace the festivities in a way that aligns with your values and brings genuine joy. By acknowledging your feelings, setting realistic expectations, and fostering connections, you can navigate the holidays with resilience and a sense of fulfillment. Remember, your mental health is a precious gift—cherish and nurture it throughout the season and beyond.