The holidays are stressful for everyone, but they can be extremely trying for those with mental illness. Not only do we face the regular headaches that the holidays often provide, but we have to stay on top of our mental health as well.
Cooking, cleaning, gift-giving, family drama: these are just a few of the things that can add to our already strained minds. But the holidays don’t have to be a source of stress for you. Let’s talk about how to actually enjoy the holidays while managing your mental health.
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What are your stressors?
Much like I talked about in my post about staying sober during the holidays, it’s always best to be prepared ahead of time. Before the festivities begin, figure out what causes you undue stress.
See if you can get some help in the kitchen, or forego it altogether. If you’re having Christmas dinner with your family, see if you can bring something that requires no cooking. You might be surprised how yummy storebought pies are these days!
If you’re keeping it lowkey and just hanging with your immediate family at home, commission your partner or older child to help. Or simply inform everyone that Christmas dinner isn’t going to be a huge event this year. My mom always used to tell us that if we wanted to complain about the food, we could make it ourselves.
Just. Say. No. I’m dead serious. Your wellbeing is so much more important than hosting the annual New Year’s Eve party. If hosting an event is freaking you out, don’t host it.
If, for whatever reason, it is unavoidable, get help. Delegate different tasks. Plan ahead and get things ready ahead of time so the day-of doesn’t induce a panic attack. And it’s okay if the event isn’t Instagram-worthy. Remind yourself that parties are meant to be fun, not stressful.
Our families can be super stressful for a lot of us, and sometimes it can’t be avoided. First and foremost, if your family is dangerous for your mental health, please, don’t risk it just to please them. If they are going to terrorize you or set you back in any way, don’t see them. Tell them that you’re not comfortable, or tell a little white lie, you’re spending Christmas with someone else.
But, if your family is just stressful and not a complete hindrance to your health, try to spend some time with them. Here are a few tips for handling your family:
- Keep the visits short: Maybe you spend each holiday with your family, but you don’t come over until a bit later and you leave early.
- Bring a few self-care items: What calms your nerves? A scented lotion? A certain song? I like to try to involve as many senses as possible. So for me, I might step outside or in a different room and listen to and watch the music video for Havana by Camila Cabello (my current guilty pleasure song), put on some scented lotion, and pop in some minty gum. That right there engaged all my senses and only takes a few minutes to do. Have a plan ready that will work for you.
- Bring a buddy: I’m a huge fan of the buddy system. Bring a friend that knows your issues and knows what to watch for with your family. For example, if your family likes to harass you about money and it completely freaks you out, tell your friend so that they can help you steer the conversation back to a safer topic.
- Come equipped with an excuse to bow out early in case you need to.
- If mantras work for you, have one in mind that you can repeat if things get hard. (It’s only for an hour might help 😉 )
You know, there’s no rule that you have to shower your loved ones with gifts. Personally, I’m keeping Christmas this year small.
First of all, my son’s birthday falls right around Christmas, so my husband and I decided to make his birthday about gifts and Christmas about giving. But, this is also a financial decision. We both have large families and simply can’t afford gifts for everyone.
Related: Awesome Free (or Crazy Cheap) Gifts
Still not sure? Why not start up a Secret Santa tradition? That way, you only have to stress about one gift. Have everyone in the family draw a name and get a gift for that person. Put a spending limit on it so that you don’t have to worry someone will “one-up” you by spending triple what you spent.
Have Some Fun
The holidays should be about having fun with people you love. I realize that isn’t always what happens, but that is the ideal situation.
Before the festivities, think of what you truly enjoy. Movies? Board games? Reading? Make sure you cut out some time to do things that genuinely make you happy.
Chances are that if you’re spending your holidays with other people, you will have to do some things that don’t necessarily appeal to you. But compromise is a powerful thing. Even young kids can be reasoned with (usually).
Maybe for every activity that you dread, you get one activity (whether it be solo or as a family). You are an amazing person who deserves to have their voice heard. You deserve to have some fun. And sometimes, even just 20 minutes to yourself is enough to recharge.
Dealing with the Family Member from Hell
Most of us have at least one family member (whether it be someone directly related or an in-law) that knows exactly how to get under our skin and does it every time we see them. The best advice I can give is to have a plan and limit your interaction.
Make a Plan
Let’s say you mother-in-law is constantly tearing apart your parenting. You know it’ll happen at that Christmas Eve Party. What do you do? You prepare!
Have a few responses ready ahead of time. I find a great course of action is to “kill them with kindness”. Even if you’re certain she is doing it to hurt you and not out of love and concern for the kids, you can reply:
“I’m so glad you love the kids enough to care about things like that.”
“It’s always nice to hear how much you love the kiddos.”
I think it helps to not immediately go on the defensive. Pretend that what she’s saying is really very appreciated (even if it’s not). Passive-aggressive? Maybe a little. But it also might help keep the peace if she starts thinking it won’t upset you.
Limit Your Interaction
Okay, so you might have to go to that Christmas party, but no one said you had to hang around your drunk Aunt Judy the whole time. Keep your distance, ignore any snide remarks you might hear her “whispering” across the room.
Any forced interaction can generally be kept short. Greet her and move on. No one said you had to engage in small talk for an hour.
Have a Buffer
Do you have a family member (or friend that you could convince to come along!) who you jive well with? Use them as your buffer. Keep them nearby at all times so that they can help steer the conversation to safer topics if things get out of hand.
Depending on the level of craziness the family member brings, you might even be able to get out of talking to them by chatting with your buffer all night. At the very least, you’ll have someone to lock eyes with when shit hits the fan so you’ll know you aren’t alone.
Tips for Your Wellness
Holidays or not, you need to protect your mental health. Here are some simple tips to help you make it through the holidays unscathed.
- Get enough sleep: Proper sleep is crucial to everyone’s health but (in my opinion) it’s even more important for those struggling with mental illness. I know that for me, my anxiety skyrockets if I’m sleep deprived.
- Take time for yourself: As I mentioned above, it is so important to have some time for yourself.
- Know how alcohol will affect you: I’ve talked to a lot of people who agree that alcohol worsens their depression. I’ve also talked to some who say alcohol doesn’t affect their depression. Know your limits. Yes, a buzz makes socializing easier, but at what cost? If drinking will negatively impact your mental health, avoid it.
- Make a budget ahead of time: I know it’s easy to overspend during the holidays. But this can be awful for your mental health, particularly if you are spending beyond your means. It’s okay to scale back on the gifts.
- Prioritize: What events are truly important and which can you skip? You don’t need to do all the things. It’s okay to pick and choose. If something is stressing you out, decide if you can cut it out completely.
- Be social (particularly if loneliness will affect your health): Even if you have no friends or family nearby, you can still find things to do that will get you out of the house. You can volunteer (which, as a bonus, will likely improve your mood). You can join a group, maybe even a group of carolers!
- Get out of the house (and your head): Even if you’re by yourself, you can still have some fun. Look for events in your area. Go see some great Christmas lights, go ice skating. We have a couple places nearby that have nativities from around the world, see if you do, too! There are a lot of ways to get out of the house and I know that for me, leaving the house is super important. I go stir-crazy if I’m cooped up!
- Make traditions to honor those you’ve lost: The holidays are a glaring reminder of the people that are no longer with us. If you’ve lost a loved one and it’s making the holidays seem empty, come up with a tradition to honor them. What were their passions, hobbies, or interests? Find a way to incorporate something they loved into your holiday.
- Focus on the positives: As the year draws to an end, it’s easy to get caught up in what you failed to accomplish in the past year. Instead, focus on what you’re grateful for and even the smallest victories. I promise you have more to be grateful for than you know.
- Treat yourself! After a very stressful day, don’t forget to reward yourself. Take a luxurious bath, light some candles, breathe. Or plop down and watch your favorite show. Whatever feels like a treat for you, do it! You deserve it.
One Last Side Note
Taking care of your mental health can feel like a full-time job. Please, if you’re struggling, reach out to someone. I highly recommend seeing your doctor and checking to see if you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Or visiting with your therapist.
If you’re not comfortable with those options, talk to a friend, family member, or even me! I reply to every email I get.
Please, don’t suffer alone.
What are your holiday plans? How will you protect your mental health this holiday season?
Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255