Protecting Your Mental Health During the Holidays

The “most wonderful time of the year” is again upon us! But let’s face it – the holidays are not the most wonderful time of year for everybody.

There’s a lot of pressure to be happy and cheerful during the winter holiday season. And to spend a lot of money. The stores are packed with seasonal goodies, television bombards us with cheesy movies and commercials urging us to surprise our spouses with brand-new cars, and even the radio stations get in on it with Christmas songs and even more commercial ads. It’s almost impossible to avoid the inundation of holiday excess.

This isn’t welcomed by everyone, especially those struggling with mental health. If you’re feeling lonely, depressed, or even just “over it” during the holiday season, you are not alone. Almost 45% of Americans said they would rather just skip over the holiday season simply to avoid the stress.

Here are some tips for keeping your mental health on track during this potentially stressful time of year.

If You’re in Recovery

The holidays are full of good cheer, often in the form of alcohol. This can be difficult for those in recovery from alcohol or drugs, especially those in early recovery.

If this is you, having a plan can be helpful. Remind yourself why you got sober in the first place. It may seem like there’s drinking everywhere you turn, so stay close to your sober friends during this time. Call them when you are feeling overwhelmed or pressured to drink. And make sure to be available to them as well; being of service is one of the best ways to stay close to your sobriety.

Make sure to H.A.L.T. when cravings occur:

Hungry:

Make sure to eat healthy, wholesome foods on a regular basis. Hunger can affect your blood sugar, which can affect your moods.

Angry:

If you’re angry, irritable, or restless, get outside or do some exercise. Better yet, do some exercise outdoors. Exercise reduces stress and rumination, and also increases your endorphin levels, which enhances your mood.

Lonely:

Have a list of people you can call. Even if you’re not feeling the urge to drink or use, plan activities or even just have regular conversations with the people who support your recovery. Loneliness can be painful, which can lead to cravings. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people.

Tired:

Stay rested. Sleep is critical to your mental health. Create a restful sleep routine; try doing some evening yoga or meditation; take a relaxing shower or bath; journal or read a book instead of watching T.V. or scrolling through your phone just before bed.

Avoid cravings altogether and try something new, like ice-skating, decorating cookies, or watching movies this year, instead of meeting your drinking buddies. Make a backup plan if you’re required to attend an event with alcohol, make sure you have a way to get home early, or have a sober buddy with you in case a party or gathering becomes too overwhelming or full of temptations.

Volunteer at a local shelter or food bank. Giving to others fosters a sense of gratitude and well-being, which makes it easier to remain sober, and grateful for that sobriety.

Begin your mornings with a gratitude list. It doesn’t need to be long or in-depth, but reminding yourself of your blessings (sobriety, a bed, food) trains your brain to focus on what you have and not what you lack. You’ve worked hard for your sobriety, don’t let the pressure of the holidays take that away from you.

If You’re Grieving

The holidays are a time to spend with loved ones. How many times have you heard that? It sounds like such a lovely sentiment, but what if we’ve lost a loved one? This can be an especially painful time of year for those who are grieving a lost family member or friend.

Don’t try to push your grief aside or avoid it. Grief is the externalized pain of your loss. It should be honored and expressed, stifling it only prolongs the inevitable. Give your loss the attention it deserves. You can honor your lost loved one in ways that offer peace to your pain. Remembering that love in a tangible way can be comforting.

Try:

Cancel the holidays if that feels right. Yes, you can cancel the holidays if they feel too painful or overwhelming. They will inevitably come around again; it’s ok to skip a year if it’s simply too difficult to go through the motions.

If plan A was to meet with your huge family for dinner, and it feels like too much, make plan B by watching movies that your loved one enjoyed, or going to a place that was special to the two of you. It’s ok to change your plans mid-step.

Go out to eat instead of having a big dinner at home. Or vice versa. Be a guest at someone else’s home instead of being the host. Go to the movies instead of watching them at home. It’s ok to make different plans with different people. It’s ok to change your mind about things, more than once. Grieving is its own beast, follow your heart. 2

If You’re Financially Challenged

We’ve experienced high inflation as of late, from the grocery stores to the gas pumps, our dollars just aren’t stretching as far as they used to. This adds a whole new layer of stress for many of us this holiday season.

More than half of all Americans stress about finances, so if you’re stressed, you’re not alone. And there is a lot of pressure to spend, spend, spend during this time of year. Don’t go further into debt this season. Instead, treat yourself with kindness.

Life is challenging and expensive. Don’t beat yourself up because you don’t have a bunch of money to throw around during the month of December. It is not a reflection on you if you must rein in the spending this year. Gift your loved ones with your time; 99% of the time, they would prefer it over “stuff” anyway.

The holidays will pass, but debt sticks around. Don’t put a bunch of stuff on credit cards or break into your savings just to appear “on top of it.” Your mental and financial health is more important than having the best gift at the ugly sweater party this year. Skip the parties if you must, but don’t create further financial stress just to save face.

Just because Instagram tells you your cousins are going to ALL the parties, in the best outfits, and receiving the best gifts doesn’t mean you’re seriously missing out. That’s the thing about social media; it’s easy to fake having this perfect life of joy, cheer, and excess. Don’t romanticize or idolize those “picture-perfect” stories on your Facebook or Instagram pages. They may be struggling just as much, or even more than you are.

The holidays are a time of generosity, so if people are generous to you, gratefully accept! Surely there has been a time when you were the generous one; think of how good it made you feel. Accept the invite to a friend’s dinner party, let your co-worker pay for the drinks thank Grandma profusely for the generous check. It is ok to accept help with gratitude.

Even without the added financial stress, the holiday season can be overwhelming. If something is adding to your stress and anxiety, skip it. You don’t have to go to all the parties or drink dates. Take a break from the chaos and pressure. Go for walks in nature instead of the shopping center. Make healthy dinners (make enough for leftovers) instead of eating out. Watch movies at home instead of running up bar tabs. Your mental health is more important than participating in every single event. 3

Take Control of the Holidays

Try not to dread the holidays.4  Building them up in your mind as this huge, expensive, chaotic, stressful time can make it seem worse than it really is. Take it easy. Stick to your normal healthy routines. Learn what your triggers are, whether financial hardships or the pressure to drink, and make a plan to manage those triggers. 5

Acknowledge Your Feelings

If you’ve recently lost someone, or you’re separated from loved ones for various reasons, it’s ok to be sad about it. It’s ok to cry, rant, or cuddle up at home and avoid people for a day or two. Don’t force yourself to act cheerful and happy if you’re not. Accept and honor your feelings, even if they don’t consist of holiday joy and cheer.

Reach Out

If you’re feeling lonely or isolated, reach out. If you’re in recovery, there are lots of AA and NA meetings online. Search for local church events nearby, or call someone you trust. Volunteer at a local shelter or food bank. Don’t drown in your loneliness if you can avoid it. Again, helping others is a wonderful way to make yourself feel better. Even bringing some groceries, or a home-cooked meal to a sick friend or relative can get you out of your head and help you feel less alone.

Protecting Mental Health During the Holidays

Be Realistic

The Hallmark Channel and Instagram aren’t very good indicators of what peoples’ lives are really like. Everyone struggles at different times for different reasons, including during the holiday season. Lower your expectations, and be willing to change them up. If the huge family dinner can’t happen this year, consider scheduling a Zoom call with your loved ones. If Grandma passed away, consider starting a new tradition in her honor. Follow your heart and realistic expectations, not the illusion of how things “should” be.

Stick to a Budget

Decide how much is healthy to spend this year, and stick to it. Don’t go overboard or try to make yourself feel better with shopping; that doesn’t usually work anyway. Consider making homemade gifts, or gifting your loved ones with your time and energy. The holidays are stressful enough without going into debt.

Plan Ahead

If you do have shopping to do, dinners to plan, and parties to throw, make a plan to alleviate as much stress as you can surrounding these events.
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Shop online if you can, or better yet, buy meaningful gifts and food from small businesses. Set your menus and shop accordingly. Do what you can to avoid last-minute trips to chaotic stores. And if people are willing to help you out, accept the help.

Keep Up with Healthy Habits

Sure, there are likely more cookies and other treats lying around this time of year, and it’s ok to indulge a little bit here and there. But don’t give up your morning run. Don’t drink to excess every night of the week. Eat a healthy meal before the holiday work party. Get plenty of sleep. Drink plenty of water. Be aware of the pressure social media and advertisements are putting on you, and don’t get swept up in it. Stay the course; if you’re careful, you can come out of the holiday season feeling calm and centered instead of exhausted and overwhelmed. 6

Reach Out for Professional Help if You Need it

If you are grieving, in early recovery, or feeling particularly depressed and anxious this year, get some help. Call your doctor or a mental health provider and talk to a professional. Don’t let overwhelming depression or anxiety go unchecked. You’re not alone if you feel overwhelmed and mentally unwell during this time of year, and getting some help is okay.8 If you’re feeling suicidal, the suicide hotline number is 1-800-2735 (TALK).

Addiction Help for the Holidays

The holidays are upon us. There’s no avoiding it. But you don’t have to go through them with white knuckles. Reach out to people who understand and make a plan to keep yourself safe and sane.

Keep yourself healthy, mentally and physically, whatever that means for you. Reach out for help if you are worried about your mental health. Stay safe. It doesn’t have to be an expensive, overwhelming, chaotic month if you don’t want it to be. Stay true to your own priorities and heart.

New Directions for Women in Orange County, California offers substance abuse and dual diagnosis treatment for women who are struggling. If you or a woman you love is struggling with addiction, reach out to us today.

Resources

  1. NAMI Staff. (2014, November 19). Mental Health and the Holiday Blues. NAMI. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://www.nami.org/Press-Media/Press-Releases/2014/Mental-health-and-the-holiday-blues
  2. Kessler, D. (2022). Grief & the Holidays. Grief.com. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://grief.com/grief-the-holidays/
  3. Wiebe, J. (2019, December 20). Surviving the Holidays When You’re Broke. Talkspace. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://www.talkspace.com/blog/financial-stress-holidays-being-broke/
  4. Gillson, D. H. (2021, December 20). The most Difficult Time of the Year: Mental Health During the Holidays. NAMI. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://nami.org/Blogs/From-the-CEO/December-2021/The-Most-Difficult-Time-of-The-Year-Mental-Health-During-the-Holidays
  5. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2020, December 11). Tips for coping with Holiday Stress. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544
  6. Advpsychiatry. (2021, November 2). Tips to manage mental health during the Holidays. Advanced Psychiatry Associates. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://advancedpsychiatryassociates.com/resources/blog/managing-mental-illness-during-holidays/
  7. Kapil, R. (2021, November 29). Five Ways to Take Care of Your Mental Health this Holiday Season. Mental Health First Aid. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/2021/11/five-ways-to-take-care-of-your-mental-health-this-holiday-season/
  8. Recovery Research Institute Staff. (2018, May 21). 10 tips for Staying Sober During the Holidays. Recovery Research Institute. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://www.recoveryanswers.org/media/159-2/