A 2014 National Alliance on Mental Health study found that, “64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse”. Similarly, the American Psychological Association found that 38% of people experience increased stress levels during the holiday season citing lack of time, financial pressure, gift-giving, and family gatherings as causes.
While many folks look forward to the holidays as a time of abundance, joy, and family, just as many of us experience feelings of stress, anxiety, loneliness, shame, misery, and depression between November and the New Year. Life is complex and often hard, and there are so many of us who do not have happy families, happy family memories or happy holidays. Feeling the “holiday blues,” and even the holiday really blues, is perfectly normal. In fact, we’re coming up on our third holiday season since the start of the pandemic so chances are we could all use a little help taking care of ourselves. We’ve compiled steps you can take to deal with the holiday blues in ways that serve your well-being and mental health.
Practice Compassion for Yourself
“But how do I practice compassion?” 1. Accept your needs. 2. Be kind to yourself. Practicing compassion is like practicing almost anything else. You will not be very good at first and you will definitely mess up. But research tells us that the deliberate cultivation of compassion changes our brains, making us more resilient and better able to cope. Here is a guide to practicing self compassion.
Monitor Your Moods
If you know the holidays are hard for you or if you notice you are extra stressed out this year, check in with yourself to see how you’re really feeling. Sometimes I don’t know when I’m feeling angry or experiencing dread unless I have a plan in place to check in with myself. For me, it’s as easy as setting two daily reminders on my phone (midmorning & evening) and keeping track of how I’m really feeling with a word or two in a note, also on my phone. Not only does this help you recognize patterns, but it’s great practice listening to your body and emotions.
Manage Your Expectations
Sometimes, it is just not possible to find that one perfect gift or to have a peaceful family gathering. We all struggle and it isn’t realistic to expect otherwise. Managing your expectations can help you cope when those struggles appear. And be sure to give yourself and those around you some grace – we’re nearing the pandemic’s third anniversary, facing global inflation, and deep political divisions, just to name a few things that might be putting all of us on edge.
Family dynamics can be very complex, also weird, upsetting, shame-inducing, and more. Acknowledge them and accept that you can only control your role. If you find yourself feeling anxious or overwhelmed, know that it is okay to take a step back and limit your exposure.
Reach Out to Loved Ones
These loved ones don’t have to be family, but they can be. The important thing is to try and stay connected. Sometimes it’s easier to communicate via email, text, or social media. If this is the case, take advantage of technology to maintain your social connections. If you have a loved one who struggles, reach out to offer your support.
Deep breathing (even just for a few minutes each day), meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can help you relax. Practice these techniques when you feel good so you are used to using them when an anxiety or stress spiral hits.
Move Your Body & Enjoy It
Daily movement is a great way to ease stress. You can go on a walk, hike, run, or bike ride; you can do yoga or pilates; you can lift weights or go rock climbing. Whatever you do, make sure you enjoy it. If you aren’t sure where to start, I suggest waiting until you are home alone to play some loud music and dance around your house for 5 minutes. This can also be done in the bathroom with headphones.
I am not going to tell you to eat “good” foods and avoid “bad” ones. “Eating well” looks different for everyone, but what you eat should make you feel good and it should be on a fairly regular schedule. Eating at the same times each day is a very good routine to establish – you’re letting your body know that it’s being taken care of, which can help ease stress. The gut-brain connection is a strong one.
Get Enough Sleep
Some mental health conditions can worsen with inadequate sleep. You can find tips here.
Avoid Drugs & Alcohol
Self medicating with drugs and alcohol may seem like one way to deal with holiday season anxiety and depression, but they often work to worsen stress.
Spend Time in Nature
There is a fast growing body of research that shows nature positively affects our mental health. In addition to the various greenbelts of Davis and the Arboretum, most of our streets are tree-lined. Taking a 5 minute walk or 5 mile walk with the intention of noticing and appreciating the natural world around you can help you reset in the short term and bolster your long term wellbeing too.
Talking can help. Friends, family, your therapist, or a support group (find free support groups in Yolo County here) are all good options. If you or someone you love is experiencing a crisis, you can call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dailing 9-8-8; use the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor for free, 24/7 crisis support via text message; or call the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) M–F, 7 a.m.–3 p.m. PT for free mental health info, referrals and support.
Surviving Painful Holiday Emotions
Guide to Mental Health During the Holidays