The holiday season is here, which is exciting because it can be a festive and cozy time to share with family and friends. But I think we all know that it can be pretty stressful, too. You might find yourself having trouble taking care of your mental health at this time because of a variety of reasons. You might be so busy this time of year that you forget about self-care, you could be stressed about finances, you might find this season tough because of relationship tensions with loved ones, and you could just feel so overwhelmed and pressured to have the perfect holiday season. And that's just a few stressors.
"The holiday season can be a particularly busy and stressful time of the year," explains Meghan Marcum, PsyD, chief psychologist at AMFM Healthcare. "We can be easily overwhelmed by the hectic nature of trying to find the perfect gift, saying yes to an increased number of social invitations, and managing complex family dynamics. Without considering our own personal needs, we can find ourselves feeling burnt out or overwhelmed by our responsibilities. Without self-care, our relationships are more likely to suffer, and we may find ourselves turning to alcohol or other substances (including a reliance on prescription medications) in order to cope with the stress that many people feel during the holidays."
The season might even feel more heightened this year because a lot of us will be finally, but safely, celebrating with family and friends when we weren't able to last year. You might feel even more pressure to do the most and make up for lost time. And there could be tension when trying to figure out everyone's comfort zones. One thing that could be helpful? Patience. "No one has known how best to navigate the COVID pandemic, which has also lent itself to cause for concern in planning family gatherings," says mental health consultant for Lina Laura Geftman, LCSW. "While we're all eager to reunite, COVID has created more stress on our family dynamics. Each individual family member needs to decide what's right for them, and others need to respect the choices of their loved ones. Whether you choose to keep to yourself or gather together, talking your decision through with your loved ones may help to manage the tension."
And don't forget that it's okay to set boundaries. "Tensions, disagreements, and differences in opinion are bound to come up during this time of the year when people are renegotiating their relationships and traditions," says Sage Grazer, LCSW, co-founder of Frame. "People often feel obligated to spend time with relatives that they don't get along with or engage in activities that they don't personally enjoy. Remember, it's okay (and necessary) to maintain boundaries with yourself and others—just because it's the holiday season doesn't give anyone the right to cross your boundaries."
It's possible that we could get so overwhelmed by the pressures and feelings that come up during the holidays that we aren't even able to be present or enjoy the season. But there are some things you can do to cope. I asked the experts for some of their best mental health tips for the holidays. Take a look at their advice below.
"You may think you might just want to be alone until you are all alone," Geftman says. "Before the actual holiday, find some options for ways you would consider spending the day. Whether you join a friend's family to celebrate or volunteer for a soup kitchen, before the day, find some ways you'd consider spending the day. Then choose one. If it's too hard, you can always leave and/or try a different plan."
2. Let Go of Rigid Traditions
Grazer recommends allowing yourself some flexibility to adapt this year. "Try to remain open-minded about what is to come this year," she says.
3. Stay Present
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"Oftentimes, we dread negative holiday experiences for weeks before they occur. Much like getting a shot, however, we realize afterward that the imagined, anticipated experience was much worse than the small prick and associated pain," explains Bill Hudenko, Ph.D., global head of mental health at K Health. "It can be helpful to cultivate a practice of mindfulness during this period. In other words, find ways to stay present in the moment and to be grateful and appreciative for what you have in the period leading up to anticipated negative encounters. This can help to reduce your anxiety and make any imagined discomforts less problematic when you have to face them."
4. Temper Expectations
"Because expectations are ultimately self-imposed, you have the power to adjust them. You may need to reexamine and reset your expectations," Grazer says.
5. Drop the Comparisons
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Comparisons can really have you doubt yourself or lower your self-esteem. Grazer says you should drop the comparisons because they can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction.
6. Say No
You might find yourself overscheduled this time of year, which can lead to more stress. So it's okay to politely decline invitations if you don't feel you have the energy or time. "This holiday season, many of us are reacclimating after the pandemic caused so much disruption to our usual holiday traditions," Marcum says. "You may find yourself receiving an abundance of invites to social gatherings; just know it's perfectly acceptable if you aren't able to accept every invitation."
"Stay attuned to your own needs and refrain from overextending yourself," Grazer says." This is an extension of the above tip—knowing what you have time and energy for can help you manage your mindset.
"Part of what causes us distress during the holidays is how we think about the meaning of this time of year. Many times the thoughts that generate the most trouble are what therapists call 'should' statements. Should statements are simple beliefs we hold about what 'should' happen in a given context," Hudenko says. "For example, you might say to yourself, 'The holiday season should be a time when we all get along, but my family doesn't,' or 'I shouldn't be alone on Thanksgiving.'" If you find yourself distressed by these types of ’should’ statements, take a moment to consider the legitimacy behind the belief. Why should your family get along? Do all families get along? Why should you be with your family? Who requires us to be with family during a holiday?"
Hudenko says that once you challenge those beliefs, you can recognize that there is more flexibility in life, and we have the freedom to develop our own beliefs. This can help you start reframing your goals so you can better enjoy the holiday season. "For example, instead of believing that your family should get along, you can say, 'I should find ways to enjoy my time with my brother,' or 'I should take time for myself during the holidays to remember what's important to me,'" he says. "This type of reframe is helpful for reminding us that in the end, the holidays symbolize values like love, togetherness, and acceptance—which can be applied in a diverse set of ways."
I've found myself wishing I had more, more, more during the holiday season, when I know I have enough. It's easy to get caught up in all of that, and feelings of resentment, envy, or jealousy might come up. Grazer suggests focusing on what you do have as opposed to what you're missing. "This doesn't mean that you have to feel grateful for every minute of your holiday season, but try shifting your attention away from the deficit mindset and identify the things that you do have in your life," she says.
10. Invite and Accept Your Feelings
Yes, even the "bad" ones. "It’s okay to feel sad or down during the holidays," Grazer says. "Although experiencing anger, resentment, or sadness may feel uncomfortable, pushing feelings away can lead to much bigger issues and often results in those feelings coming out in unintended ways that can be self-destructive or harmful to your relationships."
11. Ask for Help
"While it may seem hard to do, expressing the difficulties you're experiencing to a friend or family member will allow those you care about you to understand how the holidays are making you feel," Geftman says. "If you don't make them aware, they may not tune in to understanding that you are struggling and give you the support you need."
And if you notice a shift in mood that persists for longer than a couple of weeks, Marcum says it might be a good idea to check in with your doctor or mental health professional.
"The holidays are a difficult time for many people. Check on your friends and family members who may be struggling with their own mental health," Marcum suggests.
13. Indulge Thoughtfully
"The holidays are frequently associated with good foods and overindulgence. While we may enjoy these indulgences at the time, they can also be connected with guilt and upset when we overconsume," Hudenko says. "Consider identifying a limited set of indulgences that you allow yourself this holiday, and remember that there are many types of indulgences that might bring you as much or more pleasure than just treats. For example, pick some favorite desserts to eat but also think about other pleasures like quality time with your favorite relative, reconnecting with old friends from home, or a walk around your favorite park. In short, don't feel guilty indulging, but do so thoughtfully for better results!"
"Gift yourself some self-care time," Grazer recommends. "People often feel guilty for taking 'me' time during the holidays because there is such an emphasis on family and relationships. Stay in touch with what you need and what replenishes your spirit—for some, this looks like alone time with a good book; others might feel energized by chatting with a friend."
"Be sure to take some time to yourself. Get quiet and away from all of the noise," Geftman says. "You may choose to get out in nature, read a book, go for a walk, meditate, or journal. It's important to slow down, take a step back, and just breathe slowly. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat."
We already know that the holidays can be a time of indulgence, but don't forget to take care of yourself by not overdoing it too much on the food and drink, consuming enough water, getting some movement in, and sleeping. "By treating your body well, you will spend your days feeling more energized and less tense," Geftman says.
17. Connect With Others
"We know that strong social supports and positive relationships are protective for good mental health," Hudenko says. "Plan to connect with those you care about over the holidays—whether it is friends or family. This can be as simple as a video call with old friends or an in-person meet-up if possible. You'll be doing your mind a favor by connecting meaningfully with others."
"Decades of research in positive psychology has shown us that small bits of pleasure produce more overall happiness and well-being than large rewards," Hudenko explains. "For example, many small positive interactions or bits of pleasure during a week will typically yield more overall happiness than the big vacation you've been looking forward to. The good news is that you can intentionally build in these small bits of pleasure into your routine to enhance your mental health. This might mean spending a little extra time to brew your favorite coffee, taking a few minutes to text your best friend, or taking a quick walk with your dog."
Hudenko says that many people report that they're happiest when they're doing things for others—without any expectation of return. In that spirit, he suggests finding ways to spread joy to others this holiday season. "Consider donating your time—this can be helping a family member with a chore, spending time at a shelter, or giving your time to play with a child," he says. "'Tis the season, after all—and we know that these acts not only spread joy to others, but they will make you healthier and happier as well."
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be used in the place of advice of your physician or other medical professionals. You should always consult with your doctor or healthcare provider first with any health-related questions. See our full health disclaimer here.